London calling: Insuring our Olympians
As Michael Phelps and other members of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team don the stars and stripes in pursuit of London gold, the rest of us look forward to the comfort of our living room TVs, eagerly awaiting the imminent drama without much consideration for the dangers attached to pursuing sporting excellence — or the insurance policies required to protect elite-level athletes.
Professional athletes and their employers have purchased astronomical insurance policies in recent years. In 2009, Spanish soccer powerhouse Real Madrid reportedly insured star Cristiano Ronaldo’s legs for about $150 million. But the reality for most Olympic athletes is decidedly more modest.
Insuring our Olympians
Mark Jones, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s director of communications, says the organization provides America’s top athletes with health insurance policies from Highmark Inc., a Blue Cross Blue Shield insurer.
The policy for Olympians is called Elite Athlete Health Insurance. Highmark’s plan covers both the summer and winter Olympic teams, all Paralympic athletes and more than 300 staffers on the Olympic committee.
“Beyond the most elite athletes who compete in a given Olympic Games, those national governing bodies also have tons more athletes in their pipelines,” Jones says. “Athletes who are striving to be at the Olympic level but aren’t quite there yet may or may or not receive insurance from us — the slots allocated for those athletes vary from sport to sport.”
Beyond the ordinary
Any athlete in any sport can incur serious injury, but some sports are more dangerous than others.
As a swimmer, Phelps might face shoulder complications from years of repetitive motion. Soccer players such as Abby Wambach risk knee, leg and head injuries every time they step on the field. But athletes in high-flying gravity sports like alpine skiing and snowboarding are at even greater risk of incurring traumatic injuries. U.S. ski team great Lindsey Vonn hurls down icy, tree-laden slopes at speeds of more than 80 miles per hour with nothing but a helmet for protection. In sports like ski racing, insurance beyond the standard Olympic program may not only be a good idea, but a necessity.
Since 2006, Boston-based Global Rescue has teamed up with the United States Ski & Snowboard Association — the national governing body of dozens of Winter Olympic sports — to provide medical and evacuation services for all of its athletes.
For example, if a U.S. ski team member suffers a serious back injury while training in the mountains of Chile, the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association taps Global Rescue’s supplemental insurance policy to support the proper care and transportation of its athletes — which may include sending medical personnel to an accident site and flying athletes back to the United States on a private jet.
“Winter Olympic athletes in particular are unique in that they tend to travel to far-off places while doing things that can result in catastrophic injuries,” says Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue. “They’re the kinds of injuries that are much less likely to be seen in the general population — even the general athlete population.”
Downhill ski racers train and race at speeds of more than 70 mph, he says, and if an accident happens, the trauma and injuries can be the most severe for athletes in any sport.
Tiger Shaw, Global Rescue’s director of response services, is a former Olympian who competed as an alpine ski racer in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Winter Games.
“Beyond USSA’s group of athletes, we actually have many other Olympians from the U.S. and other countries who independently secure our services for themselves and their families,” Shaw says.
Because the majority of sports in the Summer Olympics tend be less dangerous than a few of their winter counterparts, and because England offers exceptional medical care, it’s unlikely that Global Rescue’s services will be used at the London Olympics.