How German elite-level athletes pay the bills | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 23.08.2019
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How German elite-level athletes pay the bills

Outside the football world, most German elite-level athletes are just happy to be able to make ends meet. DW spoke to three of them to find out how they pay the bills while devoting most of their time to sport.

The financial security that professional footballers enjoy can only be dreamt of by most other elite-level athletes in Germany. However, they are able to pursue their chosen sports fulltime due to Deutsche Sporthilfe, a partially government-funded charitable organization that provides support to top athletes.

"Out of our 1,500 athletes, there are perhaps 10 at the elite level who can make a good living from their sport," said rower Felix Drahotta on a recent visit to DW's Bonn offices. "And I'm talking about a monthly income of just over €1,500 ($1,661)." Everyone else, Drahotta added, has to get by on a fraction of that. 

"I think it's possible to survive with the money from Sporthilfe," agreed triathlete Sophia Saller (pictured above). "But we're still a long way from being able to make a good living from it." However, the 25-year-old also noted that there has been a lot of improvement in the support of athletes in Germany in recent years.

Funding significantly increased

Back in May, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (whose ministry is also responsible for sport) announced that financial support for athletes would be significantly increased. Around 500 athletes deemed to have the potential to become world leaders in their chosen sports (Top Team) now receive €800 per month instead of a basic subsidy of €300.

In addition, up to €300 in training grants and between €400 and €1400 in elite grants are available – "depending on success and potential". This means that through Deutsche Sporthilfe an athlete can receive a maximum of €2,500 euros monthly, which is not subject to tax. By comparison, the average net salary in Germany is currently €1,890.

Combining academics and sport

Triathlete Sophia Saller is a prime example of the fact that competitive sport and high education do not have to be mutually exclusive: At the age of 17 she completed high school in Germany with the equivalent of straight As, then moved on to study mathematics at Oxford University in England, followed by a Master's degree with distinction at the age of 21. Four years later she's almost finished her doctoral thesis. While studying at Oxford in 2014, Saller became the under-23 women's triathlon world champion.

Sophia Saller (picture-alliance/Beautiful Sports/J. Grontzki )

Sophia Saller competing at the 2018 ITU World Triathlon in Hamburg

Saller has since moved back to Germany, to Nuremberg, where the German Triathlon Union has one of its four national training centers, but she looks back fondly upon her time in the UK.

"Sport is more important at English universities than at German universities," she told DW. "Oxford supports its students to provide them with the time and environment to perform at their best, first and foremost academically, of course. But I also developed as an athlete there. And that can only happen if the circumstances are right."

In 2015, Deutsche Sporthilfe named Sophia Saller "Sports Scholar of the Year". For a period of 18 months, she received twice the funding that she would have otherwise been entitled to.

"I don't know if I'd still be competing if hadn't received the support from Deutsche Sporthilfe and the association," said the triathlete, who has come back from a number of setbacks due to illness and injury.

"As an athlete, being injured is expensive undertaking. You train and go to physiotherapy, but you can't win anything. You don't receive any media coverage and your sponsors will only stick with you for a certain period of time."

More financially secure options

Christina Hering (picture-alliance/Sven Simon/A. Waelischmiller)

Focused on her sport - for now

In terms of financial security, Christina Hering, a four-time German champion in the 800 meters, can rest a little easier.

"I've been with the Bundeswehr (the German army) since 2014," the 24-year-old athlete told DW. "I am extremely grateful for the money I receive from the Bundeswehr every month. That's really great support."

In addition to her income as a sports soldier, as a member of the Top Team Hering receives a further €400 a month from Deutsche Sporthilfe. This is 50 percent of the basic support that top athletes who are not in the Bundeswehr, the police or customs services receive.

In addition to being an elite middle-distance runner, Hering is currently studying management at the Technical University of Munich.

"Of course there are times when I'm stretched to my limit," she conceded. "Those are the times when I might think I'd rather just be an athlete or just be a student. But all in all, combining the two is doable."

It was Hering's plan to focus on both right from the beginning.

"As a rational person, you have to know that you can only compete in sports for a limited time," she said. "I'm currently focusing more on sport, but also want to be prepared for life afterwards."

Brasilien Olympische Sommerspiele 2016 Rudern Deutschland-Achter (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache)

Felix Drahotta (left, top row) was part of the German eight team that won silver in Rio

Burning enthusiasm

Rower Felix Drahotta is a step further down that path. After winning the European Championships four times as part of the German eight, finishing second at the World Championships three times, and winning silver at the Rio Olympics in 2016, the 30-year-old, who works as a mechatronics technician for a carmaker, is now considering whether or not it's time to retire from the sport.

"I'm a freak when it comes to mobility," he said. "That's why I've always been able to combine the two well. I had a burning enthusiasm both for sport and education."

He also said wasn't jealous of the highly paid professional football players.

"I decided to go for a popular sport," Drahotta laughed with touch of irony. "I also could have chosen something else."

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