Visa offers Swiss athletes passport to cash
The Swiss Olympic Association has given a cautious welcome to a sponsorship deal between credit-card firm Visa and three of the country’s future medal hopefuls.
But the head coach of Switzerland’s 2006 Winter Olympics team has expressed concern that other upcoming athletes will continue to struggle to make ends meet.
The deal with Visa gives a major financial boost to three Olympic hopefuls: alpine skier Daniel Albrecht, reigning World Cup snowboarding champion Daniela Meuli and Paralympic athlete Thomas Pfyl.
The Swiss Olympic Association has not yet decided who it will send to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, but the three were chosen by Visa because they are considered to have the talent to become future Olympic or Paralympic stars.
"They are earmarked as the best up-and-coming athletes in their disciplines... and they already have an increasing profile in their [respective] sports," said Annika Karlsson Hill of Visa Europe.
"They also have yet to win a medal at the Olympics," she told swissinfo.
The athletes concerned have not all reached the same level of sporting excellence.
While Meuli is riding high at the end of her most successful winter season to date, Albrecht returned home from this year’s skiing world championships in Bormio as a member of the worst performing Swiss team in nearly 40 years.
He and his fellow team members failed to pick up a single medal and calls have since been made for more investment in the sport.
Visa, which has a long-term sponsorship deal with the Lausanne-based International Olympic Committee (IOC), refused to disclose the amount of money being made available to the three athletes.
But Karlsson Hill said the support would be in the form of "direct financial contributions" to the cost of training and travelling.
Werner Augsburger, who is in charge of putting together the team which will represent Switzerland in Turin, welcomed the deal but called for a broader approach to corporate investment in sport.
"Take someone like Daniela Meuli, for example. It’s not easy to make money as a professional snowboarder, so from this point of view it’s a big help," he said.
"But what we would really like to see is sponsors like Visa choosing athletes not when they are already at [or near] the top level, but at the beginning of their careers... when they really need the financial support."
Augsburger confirmed that the Swiss Olympic Association had not been consulted by Visa about the choice of athletes.
"Visa is free to implement its own sponsoring policy and of course the athletes do not belong to Swiss Olympic," he said.
But he made it clear that the association would prefer to work in partnership with private sponsors and help them select the athletes with the potential to become Olympic medallists.
"It would be better to reach out to athletes five to seven years before they reach their peak.
"Obviously it’s much more difficult for a corporate sponsor to judge potential than it is for us. So [from our point of view] the best arrangement would be to have a close relationship with a company like Visa where we could help them choose the right athletes."
Flags and logos
Corporate sponsorship of Olympic teams and individual athletes is a multi-billion dollar business.
The Swiss Olympic Association itself has contracts with companies such as recruitment agency Adecco, leading bank UBS and soft-drinks manufacturer Rivella.
But the sponsorship arrangement unveiled by Visa is unusual in that the three Swiss athletes are being signed up as part of what will become a team of 30 Olympic hopefuls from ten European countries.
They are all preparing to take part in next year’s Winter Games and will be known collectively as "Team Visa Europe".
Is the Swiss Olympic Association worried that some of its own athletes may therefore be forced to march into the stadium for the opening ceremony waving the blue-and-gold Visa logo in place of the red-and-white Swiss flag?
"Oh no, I’m not worried about that," laughs Augsburger.
"The IOC charter is very clear and very strict about sponsorship rules, so I don’t think we need to fear that the Swiss flag is going to be replaced by a sponsor’s banner."
swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh
Visa has been a sponsor of the Olympic Games since 1986.
The credit-card firm intends to provide funding for around 30 athletes in ten European countries – including Switzerland – ahead of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.
The renewable sponsorship contracts with snowboarder Daniela Meuli and skiers Daniel Albrecht and Thomas Pfyl initially run until June 2006.
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