Money for Medals: Inside the Performance-Driven Funding of U.S. Olympic Teams

Every year, the United States Olympic Committee gives out about $50 million to more than 40 national sport federations to help athletes in their medal quests. The distribution has become highly tactical: Under a pay-for-performance model championed by new Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun, the national sport-governing bodies have to make their case for funding based on how the money will turn medal hopefuls into medalists=

By David Ingold and Eben Novy-Williams, Bloomberg
August 5, 2016
Bloomberg News looked at the past 17 years of USOC tax filings to shed light on the direct link between the funding and winning at the Games.

Teams that medal the most get a lot of money

The five sports that have won the most medals since 2004 – swimming, track & field, ski & snowboard, gymnastics and speed skating – have also received the most money from the USOC, some $248 million in all when adjusted for inflation. Whether money begets medals or the other way around, the relationship is strong.

High-profile sports with few medal opportunities also get big dollars

With tons of events, track and field and swimming have many more opportunities to medal, making them a relatively cost-effective investment for the USOC. But team sports such as ice hockey, soccer, and basketball also get a lot of money, often more heavily weighted toward the women’s teams. Giving travel stipends to an NHL player on the Olympic team doesn’t change the team’s medal chances, though it may for the women. Even though they count only for a pair of medal opportunities apiece, it’s expensive to run a high-profile, 20-person-roster sport – and these are sports that draw a lot of American eyeballs.

The USOC increases its investment in proven winners

Last year gymnastics, shooting, and bobsled all received more than double the funding they got in 1999, a growth that’s come in step with better performance.

When a sport struggles, it gets less

Synchronized swimming, weightlifting, and canoe/kayak haven’t won a single medal in the last two Olympic cycles, and the USOC has been shrinking its support commensurately. Synchronized swimming’s 2015 funding was its lowest in at least 17 years. Hope for the sport rests with Anita Alvarez and Mariya Korleva, though they’re longshots in the duet against the Russians and the Chinese; the US didn’t qualify in the team competition.

Some sports may need to prove themselves in Rio to keep the funding flowing

After winning medals in the last three Olympics, American sailors and equestrians failed to reach the podium in London. Both sports are expensive to sponsor – boats and horses cost a lot more than skis and table tennis paddles – and the U.S. has a long history of success in both, which argues for continued funding. But the USOC decreased its allocations to these sports last year and could do so again, depending what happens in Rio.

The USOC has seemingly lost interest in other sports

The USOC says that in some sports, the country’s medal chances are nonexistent, and if giving money won’t help, the funding goes elsewhere. For example, a U.S. handball team hasn’t qualified for the Olympics since the 1996 games in Atlanta, when the U.S. received automatic entries as the host nation. Handball gets some money for organizational development and administration, but nothing for training or competition.

Sometimes, it takes only one prodigy to turn the tap back on

The U.S. hasn’t won a medal in the Modern Pentathlon (fencing, swimming, show jumping, shooting, running) since Emily deRiel won silver in 2000. But now it has a contender in 24-year-old Margaux Isaksen, who finished fourth at the London games. Funding for the sport has been rising right along with Isaksen’s star, up to $589,000 this year, more than double what the NGB received in 2009. Insiders refer to this as the „Margaux Isaksen Effect.”

The USOC uses money to seed future Olympic sports

The USOC funds more than just Olympic sports. It gives money to some sports to represent the U.S. in the Pan-Am Games. It also ramps up funding for new Olympic sports such as rugby — which returns to the Games this year for the first time since 1924. What’s next? Softball and karate, for example, which still get some funding, were among the sports added for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

Olympic sports, dollar for dollar

If history is any guide, track & field will yield the highest medal return on the USOC’s investment in Rio.

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