Home Depot Inc., citing the difficult economy and the impact of the housing downturn, has ended its program that gave Olympic athletes part-time jobs, flexible hours and full-time pay and benefits to help support their training. In the 16 years that Home Depot has sponsored the U.S. and Puerto Rico Olympic and Paralympic teams, it has employed 600 athletes who have won 145 medals.

In May, before the summer Olympics, 137 athletes were in the program. At the time, the company had said it was weighing whether it would continue its Olympic sponsorship.

Home Depot is the first top-level sponsor to leave the USOC since General Motors Corp. dropped out in 2007. Sixteen other major sponsors have renewed for the 2009-2012 cycle.

The athletes now employed by Home Depot can continue working flexible hours on a part-time basis and retain health benefits, but their salaries will be halved. The athletes can apply for full-time jobs at stores with available openings. No new athletes will be accepted into the program.

Under the program, athletes were required to work about 1,000 hours a year to maintain a salary of about $25,000