Olympic Injuries Mean Losing More than Gold Medals

This is a guest post by our colleague, Katherine Gatti, an attorney specializing in workers’ compensation law.

Brady Canfield starts at skeleton - image from Wikimedia.org

Brady Canfield starts at skeleton – image from Wikimedia.org

As I’m watching the women’s skeleton event, it’s easy to forget that Olympic sports are not just a hobby for some people. Rather, flying head first at 90 miles per hour on a lunch tray is just another day at the office for them. Obviously there are many differences between their job and mine, most obviously the serious risks involved. I can’t help but think of the risk they expose themselves to every day. More importantly, I wonder what protection is available when inevitable injuries occur.

Most employees in this country, with several exceptions, are covered by some form of workers’ compensation insurance that provides coverage for medical expenses and lost wages as a result of a work injury. Although this system is by no means perfect for injured workers – that’s an entire series of blog posts by itself – it does exist.

When we think of Olympic athletes, most of us assume that they’re floating in sponsorships and excess money like Shaun White (whose net worth is estimated over $40 million after 3 straight Olympic gold medals in the men’s halfpipe event). With that amount of money, it doesn’t seem like we should be worrying about their insurance. However, the reality is that most Olympians are forced to have a second job to provide not only income, but also health insurance. Practicing and competing at this level can be outrageously expensive with travel, training, and equipment. If these Olympians are unable to handle a second job with their intense training and competition schedule, they must rely on family and friends for financial support.

In contrast to typical workers, Olympians are not afforded protection with workers’ compensation insurance. They’re not paid to compete by the country, so they’re not employees. But an important thing to consider with Olympians’ health insurance (wherever they get it) compared to a typical workers’ compensation insurance policy is that it doesn’t offer protection for lost wages. Rather, if an Olympian is seriously injured while training or competing in their respective sport and they can no longer perform their second job as a result, they’re out of luck.

Take Seth Wescott, for example. The 37-year-old Carrabasset Valley resident had his sights set on nabbing his 3rd gold medal in Sochi this year in the snowboard cross event. Unfortunately, Wescott sustained a serious knee injury while working with a ski filmmaker in the Alaskan wilderness in April 2013, so serious that he required a full reconstruction of his left knee. By the time qualifying events rolled around to determine the U.S. Olympic team, he simply wasn’t fully recovered and could not qualify. Fortunately for him Westcott has a backup plan – he co-owns a popular bar at Sugarloaf. Most aspiring Olympians are not as lucky.

So, next time you turn on the television to watch the finals of an Olympic event, think a bit about the sacrifices these athletes are making – working hard not only in their athletic endeavors but also at their second jobs to afford the pursuit of their dreams.

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