How much does it cost an American athlete to be an Olympian? That depends on whether you're talking out-of-pocket expenses, which are easy to add up, or time lost in starting a career, which is hard to stick a price tag on. "You put your life on hold," says Andy Sudduth, a 26-year-old Harvard graduate who has postponed pursuing a master's degree in computer science to train for and to compete in single sculls in Seoul. "It happens to everyone in rowing."

America's leading amateur athletes are asked to do the impossible: go head-to-head with the state-subsidized athletes of other nations while preparing for a future for themselves and their families. It's time they got more help.

Preparing to compete against the world's best is a seven-days-a-week undertaking that leaves limited time for pursuing a nonsports vocation. U.S. Olympic athletes are asked to make this sort of commitment in return for which most of them can expect no more than a trip to South Korea, a couple of moments of applause, a few dollars from the U.S. Olympic Committee—not nearly enough to offset living and training expenses—an outfit or two from Adidas, some Olympic pins, and, thanks, bub, there's the way to the door. Come back in four years, and we'll do it again.

America can do better than that. Every time the Olympics roll around there's a lot of talk about "systems"—as in the East German and Soviet systems that enable those countries to develop so many outstanding athletes. The U.S. has a system, too: It's called capitalism. Free enterprise. But American Olympic athletes, by virtue of their devotion to their sports, are being shut out of the system. Too often, those who are out of college have had to choose between pursuing their sports or their careers. This brings various pressures—psychological, financial, familial—into play.

The lack of financial support from the U.S. sports establishment and the prospect of having to seek an entry-level job when his competitive career had run its course in his late 20's almost forced Mike Swain to quit after he competed in judo at the 1984 Olympics, though he knew he was physically not yet in his prime. He's now the world champion in the 156.5-pound class and is a good bet to win a medal in Seoul.

How was the 27-year-old Swain able to continue? Chips and Technologies, Inc., a company that makes integrated circuits in California's Silicon Valley, signed on with the Olympic Job Opportunities Program (OJOP) and gave Swain a position as an international marketing associate. Chips and Technologies also gave him time off, with pay, to train and compete.

Swain was one of the lucky ones. OJOP was created in 1977 to encourage businesses to hire athletes who were preparing for the Olympics, but corporations have been slow to react. Only 120 athletes are currently employed through OJOP "I'm not sure that program works," says sculler Anne Marden, who won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics and will be competing again in Seoul. "I used to send my rèsumè into it every year, and I never got so much as an interview out of it. And I was one of their more employable candidates." A 30-year-old Princeton graduate with a degree in economics, Marden got a job on her own as a financial analyst in the London office of J.P. Morgan, the international banking company. She's taking a 10-week unpaid leave of absence to go to the Olympics.

You would think that U.S. companies, many of which invest millions to become sponsors of the American Olympic team, would fall over each other to recruit motivated, disciplined athletes. But of the hundreds of corporations contacted by the USOC in the past four years, only 95 have agreed to participate in OJOP. Why the poor response? Athletes need flexible work schedules—time to train before and after work and as many as three months a year to prepare for and participate in events such as the Pan Am Games, the Goodwill Games and the Olympics. Companies participating in OJOP allow them that time off with full pay.

What do the corporations get out of this? Quality employees, first and foremost, plus the satisfaction of knowing they're investing directly in people, rather than in something as nebulous as The Olympic Effort. "These are not the sort of people you have trouble with," says Norman Barham, a senior vice-president and director of Johnson and Higgins, an insurance company that has hired four Olympic athletes. "Their work ethic is inspiring. And it helps morale to watch and cheer for Olympians who are your coworkers. The bottom line is we get more out of the program than we put into it."

That shouldn't come as a surprise. America's Olympic athletes have been giving more than they've been getting back for years.