A sporting chance

When the axe falls on their glittering lives in sport even
star athletes can find it difficult to establish a career when they retire from
the track. Which is where the Open scheme comes in to play, ensuring that
former sportsmen and women don’t get off to a false start in the world of work.  By Nadia Damon

Having a future Olympic Gold medallist working for your company might sound
a bit far-fetched, but businesses could easily get a top athlete on the payroll
as British sporting organisations look for companies willing to employ the
country’s top sportsmen and women.

While there are hundreds of athletes in the UK aspiring to be the next
Denise Lewis or Steve Redgrave, the reality is that only a few will actually go
on to achieve their ambition and retire from competition without needing to
work.

Athletes who have concentrated on their chosen discipline instead of
continuing into further education face an uphill struggle to get themselves
back into the workplace if they find themselves deselected or forced into
retirement through injury. Many are left with few ideas about what career they
would like to pursue and can offer employers little in terms of solid work
experience.

Pete Ambrose, programme co-ordinator for Open (Olympic & Paralympic
Employment Network) at the British Olympic Association, says athletes who have
been competing full-time for 10 to 15 years without thinking of life after
sport start at the bottom of the corporate ladder with little or no commercial
experience.

He says that following the UK’s poor performance in the 1996 Olympic Games,
the British Olympic Association and UK Sports Institute began to look at what
other countries were doing to support their athletes. They found that access to
specialist careers and advice helped them achieve a more balanced life while
competing – leading to better prospects when their sports careers ended.

The Open programme was implemented the following year with the intention of
placing British athletes in part-time or full-time employment. And in 1999, the
UK Sports Institute, British Olympic Association and British Paralympic
Association came together in a joint career opportunities programme called
Athlete Career and Education (Ace UK).

This was the first time such a support mechanism had been put into place for
Britain’s athletes, and followed roll-outs of similar programmes in the US.

The scheme is in two parts. First, it supports competing athletes by helping
them develop their career plans; second, it refers them to Open, which has some
60 companies across the UK signed up as prospective employers. Jobs tend to be
concentrated either in London, or areas where competitors train for their
chosen sport – Milton Keynes, for instance, is the base for many hockey
players.

Since Open was introduced, some 30 to 35 athletes have found positions with
member companies, although Ambrose claims there are potentially 2,000 athletes
who could use the programme.

"Our role is to work with athletes across the UK to identify what their
career aspirations are, so they can pursue this in conjunction with their
sport," says national Ace UK co-ordinator Wenda Donaldson.

Attending an Ace career assessment session is mandatory for athletes, says
Donaldson, although further counselling and guidance is down to the individual.
The scheme is offered free to eligible athletes during their career and up to
12 months after retirement or deselection.

Career planning and counselling is provided by outplacement and career
coaching firm Drake Beam Morin, which set up a similar scheme in the US five
years ago.

A typical programme will incorporate four hours of counselling, a workshop,
plus four hours of follow-up counselling. Athletes will also be put on a
three-day job search workshop, work with a career coach, prepare a CV and gain
an understanding of how to look for work. Other elements include interview
preparation and understanding how to market and sell themselves to employers.
The company also provides them with access to seminars and online databases.

"For the first time in their lives – in many cases – these athletes are
looking to get a job," says Marie Fimrite, UK operations director at Drake
Beam Morin, who has counselled a number of US athletes.

"They retire at really young ages and then have to integrate into the
workforce. What we show them is that [getting a job] is not just about skills,
it’s about motivation and personality traits. We help athletes to see what
their skills are, the characteristics that employers look for, how to position
themselves, how to dress, what it’s like in the workplace and what will be expected
of them."

While athletes who have studied specific courses at university, such as law,
economics or engineering, can be immediately attractive to prospective
employers, Fimrite claims athletes can bring other valuable skills to the
marketplace. "They have a lot of dedication and commitment to what they
do, are team players, and know how to be focused."

For companies, having an athlete on the payroll can bring valuable public
relations opportunities, but they will need to be prepared to work out a flexible
schedule with a competing athlete – to accommodate the sporting season and
competition appearances such as the Olympics.

"It is still quite rare for athletes to work full-time because of heavy
training commitments," says Ambrose. "However, a competitor who
specialises in shooting or hockey could work full-time, but might need their
employer to help them compete in events."

Fighting fit for business

Many companies employing top athletes use them to help raise the company’s
profile. Darlington and Durham Fire Service was able to publicise a number of
charitable events through Glen Wharton, a firefighter who is also a competing
sports acro gymnast. Because of his success as a sportsman, the service has
been able to use him to publicise its activities. During a station open day,
Wharton was offered as a prize in a raffle. He has appeared on television,
radio and in newspapers – he was photographed for the Daily Star. Wharton says
he has been able to take time off to participate in sporting events, and the
service has received good publicity from his sporting success.

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