Mountain biker Lea Davison was heartbroken.
She was supposed to have been competing in her third Olympics in Tokyo the past two weeks, but the Games were pushed back an entire year, rescheduled for 2021.
Instead of vying for a medal in women's cross-country cycling after placing seventh at the 2016 Games and 11th at the London Games in 2012, the 37-year-old Davison has been reshaping her focus for another uncertain year of training — where her usual domestic competitions have also been put on hold and financial resources have been drained due to COVID-19.
"As athletes, this would have been our time to shine, the moments we've been working towards for a lifetime," Davison said. "To miss out on that, it throws you through a loop because it's a hell of a lot of work to get to the Olympics. I kind of went through a grieving process but then tried to see an extra year to improve — and become as fast as possible — as a positive. Because the way I look at it is I've already done a lion's share of the work so I'm not going to give up now."
As resilient and unwavering as Davison and other Olympians have been, the practical side of the detriments from the Tokyo Games' postponement have come on a financial level where funding was hardly plentiful beforehand.
Davison relies on USA Cycling, a National Governing Body (NGB) that serves as a separate branch of Olympic sports, to stay supported financially. Outside of the essentials provided by NGBs, Olympic athletes on average will still pay anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 out of pocket for travel, training and nutrition.
Lea Davison (USA) competes in the women's cross country cycling mountain bike event during the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Mountain Bike Centre. (Photo: Matt Kryger, USA TODAY Sports)
"Other countries receive financial backing from their governments," Davison said. "We get most of our money on our own from donors, sponsorships and private funding. Even though we are Olympians and have this spotlight every four years, most of us do not do this for the money because most of the time we don't make much money."
Because of the economic hit that the coronavirus pandemic has had on those avenues for financial support, Davison and fellow Olympians from similarly lower-profile sports have been relying on the Giving Games, fundraisers being used to help support athletes, taking place from July 24-Aug. 9. There are 21 sports NGBs encompassed in the Giving Games, including Davison's USA Cycling.
"We literally are turning to the people who watch us to help us be positioned to be watched," Davison said. "What many people don't realize is how sometimes we're just barely getting by financially to get to the Olympics."
Davison, who married her wife Frazier Blair in September 2018, said one way she's been able to support her family has been with individual sponsorship, a luxury many Olympians don't have. A plethora of Olympic athletes find themselves in a two-careers scenarios.
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We were supposed to be at the Olympics this week. Despite the disruption, I am still full on training for Tokyo 2021, and this gives me a whole year to get even better and bring my best self to that starting line. It also means that it’s a whole extra year of support needed. @usacycling foundation has been crucial support to my Olympic journey so please consider standing with @usacycling Olympic hopefuls and fueling their journey by participating in @givinggames. Link in bio and story. Help us win medals in Tokyo! Let’s do this! #givinggames
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But even Olympic athletes who do have sponsorship dollars like Davison aren't fully financially supported. Davison estimates her sponsors cover 20% of her expenses. She said one major shift she's seen from a societal lens that's greatly helped her sponsor-wise has been the country's acceptance of the LGBTQ community.
Prior to the 2016 Games, Davison said there was still a fear factor for gay or lesbian athletes to be publicly out — with the concern that being visibly LGBTQ would lose them sponsorship dollars. Greg Louganis won Olympic gold medals for the U.S. in 1984 and 1988 and came out in 1994. He said back then, "there were moral clauses where a part of your personal life could be used as a reason to cut sponsorship."
That's drastically changed thanks to the pioneering of LGBT athletes like Adam Rippon, Gus Kenworthy and Megan Rapinoe, all who capitalized on their publicly-out identities in sponsorship ads.
"There's been an amazing shift in the last couple of years," Davison said. "Because of the trailblazers like Megan, Gus and Adam, it's really been flipped on its head. And thank goodness for a more inclusive world. Before it used to be, 'if the companies know I'm gay I'll lose those sponsors.' Now the fact that I'm gay is a bonus."
Lea Davison and her wife Frazier celebrate their wedding. (Photo: USA Cycling, Lea Davison courtesy)
Davison said her sponsor, Louis Garneau Sports, helped make customized matching white cycling jerseys for her and Frazier's wedding, while her other sponsor, Clif Bar & Company, promoted the marriage on social media.
"Some of these actions help me realize I can be more vocal about my sexuality and I feel empowered to show it," Davison said. "I can show the youth to be an example of a gay Olympian who can still have sponsorship (deals). That's a really important message to send to the next generation."
Davison said the evolution from a marketing perspective is also powerful because of its combativeness against the homophobia that she's experienced in her sport over the last few decades.
"Homophobia isn't always blatant, most of the time it's subtle," Davison said. "And that can hurt physical performance when your emotional well-being and headspace are affected by sad and depressing acts.
"It's why (LGBT) Olympians being more celebrated, in pressing times like these, can be so meaningful."
Follow reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
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