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Older Olympians milk cash cow

Athletes are competing longer as more money flows their way.

The reporter appeared to be probing for something deep. A Zen-like answer to explain the number of older athletes who are competing in the Olympics.

Is it a new generation that refuses to bow to preconceived notions of age?

Have training and technology expanded horizons beyond chronological age?

Is there a renewed emphasis on patriotism?

"You don't want to hear this," four-time gold medal-winning swimmer Amy Van Dyken said, "but money is the biggest part of it."

And there you have it: It pays to be an older Olympian.

At least it does for swimmers such as Van Dyken, 27; Jenny Thompson, 27; Josh Davis, 28; and Dara Torres, 33. Not to mention gymnast John Roethlisberger, 30. And soccer player Brandi Chastain, 32. And basketball player Teresa Edwards, 36. And even sprinter Michael Johnson, who turns 33 Wednesday.

Purists may bemoan the the Olympics turning to crass commercialism, but athletes prefer to think of it as cash commercialism.

Twenty years ago, athletes had to make a choice: Should they pursue the ideals of the Olympics or should they stop bouncing checks? It was fine to maintain amateur status while on a college scholarship, but at some point, earning a living became paramount. You know what they used to call a 23-year-old swimmer? Unemployed.

"There were a lot of people who had to retire out of college when they didn't want to," said Van Dyken, who had not made an Olympic team by the time her eligibility ran out at Colorado State before the 1996 Games. "From my understanding, women do not hit their peak until they are 30. So you're seeing better swimmers now that people are going deeper into their careers.

"And it's good that athletes have that choice. It's hard to give up on a sport when you see yourself improving every year."

The idea of amateurism in the Olympics was not a notion of the ancient Greeks but rather the 19th-century aristocracy. It was a way of separating the upper class and the working class. Because the upper class could train without worrying about paying bills, it preferred the idea of an amateur Olympics.

Without being subsidized, the working class could hardly afford to put in the training necessary to challenge the wealthy.

The concept of amateurism varied from country to country, but the basic principle remained intact until after the 1988 Games when the International Olympic Committee voted to make professionals eligible. With the notable exception of boxing, the national governing bodies of the various sports pretty much fell in line.

Whereas some track and field athletes and professionals in team sports such as basketball can become wealthy through prize money or salaries, the real benefit for competitors is endorsement money.

American swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg has not won an Olympic medal, but already he has seven endorsement deals based on his potential celebrity in the next month. He will earn a six-figure income this year. In Australia, where swimming is a leading sport, teenage sensation Ian Thorpe is said to be a millionaire based on his endorsement deals.

Johnson and Marion Jones, the male and female stars of track and field, could retire after this year. Not retire from competition; retire from the work force. Their incomes are expected to be in the millions.

"The majority are not going to get rich, but at least they can devote the time they need to training," said distance runner Regina Jacobs, 37, who withdrew from her fourth Olympics team because of a viral infection. "One of the nice things about running at an older age is the experience that comes with it. It comes in handy at world championships, where you have to go through rounds."

This is not to suggest that all Olympic athletes are mere mercenaries in 2000. An athlete does not get to this level without having a certain love affair with his sport and the training it requires.

And athletes in many sports are not getting rich no matter what amateur rules are or are not in place. Wrestler Matt Ghaffari, a father of four, estimated he was $180,000 in debt this year after devoting nearly 20 years to international wrestling. Ghaffari, 38, quit for two years after the '96 Games so he could work for a computer company and save money for a final run at the Olympics in 2000. He did not make it, losing in the final of the Greco-Roman trials.

Gymnast Shannon Miller also made a comeback in 2000, attempting to qualify for her third Olympic team at 23 _ which in gymnastics years is 46. Miller, who is married to a doctor, seemed more moved by the idea that she could make the U.S. team stronger rather than fatten her bank account.

Turns out, she did neither. Miller failed to qualify for the U.S. team, largely because injuries slowed her training. The point was not lost on the athletic community, however, that Miller, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow and Jaycie Phelps still were competing in gymnastics past the age of 20.

"It used to be these tiny little pixie kids running on the floor," U.S. gymnastics team coordinator Bela Karolyi said. "Now it's a more mature, better all-around-shaped athlete. It's a plus. It's maturity, capability. It's absolutely a plus for the sport."

In 1984, swimmer Rowdy Gaines was an Olympic relic. Of his 67 rivals in the 100-meter freestyle, he was older than 66 of them. He went on to win the gold medal in an Olympic record time of 49.80 seconds. He was 25 years old. These days, that would not be old enough to get him a choice seat at the team dinner.

Whether the Olympic demographics will continue to grow older is debatable. Even though athletes now train into their 30s, at some point nature will have a greater affect on their abilities.

Even so, athletes agree that competitors at least will get the most out of their careers and not retire prematurely.

You can count on that.

It's money in the bank.