Does The Special Olympics Financially Exploit Their Athletes?

Does The Special Olympics Financially Exploit Their Athletes?

What are athletes supposed to do when they work for free and aren’t allowed to have sponsors?

When Ashton Smith was just a little girl, back in the 1990s, she discovered swimming at her local YMCA. Not only did she love it, but she excelled at it. The reason why it was so special was that Ashton is legally blind. While still in elementary school, her grandmother raised her and got her involved in the Special Olympics. She then spent the next 27 years of her life dedicated to the Special Olympics and athletics.

While involved in the Special Olympics, Ashton wasn’t just a swimmer; she also participated in bocce, track and field, basketball, and flag football. She played all of these sports for the Special Olympics, won gold medals, and traveled worldwide.

From the outside looking in, it would appear that Ashton Smith was living her best life. Unfortunately, that was far from reality.

Homelessness and poverty.

In January 2019, NBS DFW ran a story about Ashton, how she was homeless and now headed to the World Games in Dubai. While their story was supposed to be positive and how she was going to the World Games after being homeless, they never stopped to ask, “Why is she homeless?”

Her grandmother, who took care of her financially, had passed a few years earlier. This ultimately led to her being homeless, hungry, and out of her own. Here’s the thing, though.

While she was homeless and living in abject poverty, she was still an athlete in the Special Olympics, participated in competitive games, and won gold medals.

It led me to wonder why a gold medalist Olympian wasn’t swimming in cash?

It turns out, the rule book for the Special Olympics basically bans their athletes from earning any income. I’m paraphrasing, but here is what the rules actually say:

The Special Olympics must offer full participation at the area level for every athlete regardless of his/her economic circumstances. Each accredited program shall offer comprehensive year-round sports training conducted by qualified coaches in accordance with these Sports Rules. Every Special Olympics athlete who competes in a Special Olympics sport at a game or a tournament must be trained in that sport. Training shall include physical conditioning and nutrition education. 

What that means, is just like any other professional athlete, Special Olympics athletes must train full time. A job? You can forget it, being a Special Olympics athlete is a full-time job. Ashton told me, while training for their Special Olympics, she was swimming five to six hours a day, six days a week.

College? You can forget it, if you are training for the Special Olympics full time.

This is how Ashton made it to her 30s without a degree or a lot of work experience.

By giving her life to the Special Olympics, Ashton Smith didn’t have any other way to earn an income. You might be thinking, “Well, she made money by being a Special Olympics athlete.” However, Special Olympics athletes don’t get paid, even if they win.

According to their rule book, only official medals and ribbons are to be awarded. Other awards, such as money or gifts, are prohibited.

What about corporate sponsorships?

From the Texas Special Olympics rule book: In order to avoid commercial exploitation of persons with intellectual disabilities, no uniforms, and no bibs or other signs bearing competition numbers, which are worn by Special Olympics athletes during any competition or during any opening or closing ceremonies of any Games may be emblazoned with commercial names or commercial messages. 

In layman’s terms, Special Olympics athletes cannot have corporate sponsors. Although, as a team, they are allowed to have corporate sponsors, that’s something that the coaches organize, and no money from those sponsorships go to the athletes.

There is no way for a Special Olympics athlete to make an income from their Special Olympics involvement.

Since being an athlete in the Special Olympics is like a full-time job, it is likely they aren’t making money outside of the Special Olympics, either.

You have to remember that a large majority of these athletes have an intellectual disability and likely live at home with their parents or a caregiver. Not Ashton. She lives on her own and supports herself.

Ashton Smith has given her entire life to the Special Olympics and doesn’t have a dime to show for it.

The Special Olympics also does not pay for athletic equipment, athleticwear, food, or travel.

When Ashton went to the World Games in Dubai, she had to foot the entire $5,000 bill herself. When the Special Olympics traveled to other states, the athletes would have to pay for the hotel rooms and food independently. When you’re broke or homeless, like Ashton was, all of these things are practically out of reach with no income.

I asked Ashton how other athletes can afford it. She told me that it is common practice for the athlete’s parents to get hired by the Special Olympics and become a paid employee. She also told me that the Special Olympics gives each one of their athletes a fundraising kit to raise their own funds to attend events.

Being an athlete in the Special Olympics prevents you from getting a job or higher education. You don’t earn any money from it, and you are charged with paying for all of your own equipment and travel via the fundraising kit the Special Olympics provides you.

Where does all of the Special Olympics money go?

They are a non-profit, so their finances are listed online. The last one they have posted is 2018 (leaving us all to wonder where their 2019 financials are).

In 2018 the Texas chapter of the Special Olympics earned $7.9 million.

They paid $443,000 in executive salaries, $200,000 to a Telemarketing firm to do fundraising, and $3.2 million to other salaries (office staff, trainers, and coaches). They even pay travel expenses for staff. Just not for the athletes.

The Special Olympics makes millions of dollars each year, pays their executives generous six-figure salaries, but according to Ashton, it offers no financial support to their athletes.

Ashton also told me that the athletes are often charged with cleaning up the venue after an event.

Why hasn’t anyone spoke out about this before?

I searched high and low, looking for previous articles or other athletes speaking out about their athletes’ financial exploitation, and I couldn’t find anything. I asked Ashton, “Are you aware of any other athlete who has spoken out about exploitation?”

Since so many of these Special Olympics athletes are intellectually disabled, she told me that most don’t even understand what exploitation is. The ones who are aware and do understand it are scared to speak out.

I reached out directly to the Special Olympics for a quote. They didn’t respond to me.

Ashton is no longer in the Special Olympics.

In 2019, soon after the World Games, another athlete began bullying Ashton. They attacked her body type and used racial epithets in their attack. She responded on Facebook and made a video about the attack. However, her response was in direct conflict with the Special Olympics Social Media rules.

In September 2019, the Special Olympics suspended her indefinitely.

At the age of 34, this left her with no money, in debt, little job experience, and no college education. “It’s been hard,” she told me, “I’ve struggled with making ends meet.”

She wants to be a motivational speaker. You can follow her on Facebook, where she often gives input and updates on Facebook live. You’ll see that she has the enthusiasm and articulation that every motivational speaker needs to be successful. We think she would be perfect for it.

What can you do to help?

After her grandmother passed away, her sister was the one who helped her through life. Her sister also passed away last year. Getting through life as a visually impaired person has been hard, so she’s raising money to buy an OrCam, to help her with daily tasks that we all take for granted. Here is her GoFundMe, if you can.

The Special Olympics needs to provide better transparency and should at very least pay the athlete’s expenses to participate and travel. Until that happens, the possible financial exploitation of disabled individuals remains high. Remember that if you donate to this charity.

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