The Olympic Money Wars

Albuquerque Journal - Parade - - FRONT PAGE - by Jamie McEwan

TWO WEEKS from Fri­day, the stars of the win­ter sports world will take cen­ter stage in the ul­ti­mate fes­ti­val of ice and snow: the 2010 Olympic Games in Van­cou­ver, Canada. Among the 2500 ex­pected com­peti­tors are U.S. fan fa­vorites like fig­ure skater Evan Lysacek, alpine skiers Lind­sey Vonn and Bode Miller, speed-skaters Sha­ni­ani Davis and Apolo An­ton Ohno, and snow-board­erer Shaun White. The world will be watch­ing as they face off against ath­letes from around the globe.

But there’s one ri­valry you won’t see tele­vised. Be­yond the slopes and be­hind the scenes, the United States Olympic Com­mit­tee is caught in an on­go­ing dis­pute with the In­ter­na­tional na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee. At stake is the USOC’s OC’s rep­u­ta­tion— and fund­ing for fu­ture U.S. Olympic teams.

One sign of the con­flict was the IOC’s lop­sided Oc­to­ber vote award­ing the 20166 Sum­mer Games to Rio de Janeiro. The se­lec­tion off that vi­brant Brazil­ian city was not un­ex­pected, but many had pre­dicted a bet­ter show­ing for Chicago, Ill.—es­pe­cially in light of Pres­i­dent Obama’s trip over­seas to lobby per­son­ally for his home­town’s bid. Amer­i­cans viewed Chicago’s last-place fin­ish as a slight to the Pres­i­dent, but Swiss IOC mem­ber De­nis Oswald called the elim­i­na­tion “a de­feat for the USOC, not for Chicago.”

There have been other signs of fric­tion, too. For some time, in an at­tempt to broaden pub­lic in­ter­est in Olympic sports, the USOC had been openly de­vel­op­ing a plan for an Olympic ca­bleTV net­work. “Low-pro­file sports need ex­po­sure; they need a branded home,” said Nor­man Belling­ham, the USOC’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and a 1988 kayak­ing gold-medal­ist. In July, the USOC in­formed the IOC of its im­pend­ing ca­ble deal and then went ahead with a pub­lic an­nounce­ment— only to meet with ve­he­ment protests from abroad.

“They just do what they want to do,” IOC fi­nance-com­mis­sion chair­man Richard Car­rion com­plained. Sur­prised at the neg­a­tive re­ac­tions, the USOC quickly back­tracked. “We will not move for­ward with the net­work un­til we have the full sup­port and co­op­er­a­tion of the IOC,” Belling­ham said.

Tele­vi­sion is also at the heart of the pri­mary dis­pute be­tween the two com­mit­tees. The IOC earns a great deal of its bud­get by auc­tion­ing U.S. broad­cast­ing rights, but in the­ory the USOC could con­trol th­ese rights, since it owns the Olympic brand in the U.S. In ex­change for al­low­ing the IOC to bro­ker the auc­tion, the USOC re­ceives 12.75% of the broad­cast rev­enue. (Given that NBC paid $820 mil­lion for this year’s rights, the stakes are high.) The USOC also gets 20% of the IOC’s world­wide spon­sor­ship in­come.

The IOC would dearly love to rene­go­ti­ate th­ese terms. And it may get the chance—Scott Black­mun, the new CEO of the USOC, has pledged to im­me­di­ately open talks for a new deal. A re­vised agree­ment

A be­hindthe-scenes ri­valry may af­fect fu­ture Olympians

would likely re­duce the per­cent­ages the USOC re­ceives from the IOC.

All told, the USOC helps field teams in 45 sports with less money than the New York Yan­kees spend on salaries alone. Its an­nual bud­get of $150 mil­lion is al­ready less than es­ti­mated bud­gets for Euro­pean ri­vals with smaller pop­u­la­tions. Com­par­isons across bor­ders can be de­cep­tive, since in­di­vid­ual sports raise ad­di­tional money sep­a­rately—some U.S. pro­grams, such as ski­ing and fig­ure skat­ing, are flush with cash. But in small sports for which the USOC is the pri­mary spon­sor, the dif­fer­ence is clear. For­mer ca­noe/kayak di­rec­tor David Yar­bor­ough es­ti­mates, for ex­am­ple, that the U.S. bud­get for his sport is one-tenth of Bri­tain’s, France’s, Ger­many’s, or Hun­gary’s. Most of the 205 Olympic na­tions pro­vide gov­ern­ment fund­ing for their Olympic com­mit­tees. The U.S. does not. A por­tion of the USOC’s rev­enue is from spon­sor­ships, but more than half comes from its deal with the IOC, so any cut would be felt all the way down to the ath­letes.

Ques­tions about fed­eral fund­ing have been raised re­cently. And in June, Pres­i­dent Obama an­nounced the for­ma­tion of a White House Of­fice of Olympic, Para-lympic, and Youth Sport, which may sig­nal a change in the USOC’s re­la­tion­ship with the gov­ern­ment. M OST OLYMPIC ATH­LETES ARE too fo­cused on train­ing to pay at­ten­tion to such po­lit­i­cal ques­tions. And sur­pris­ingly, though it’s hard to find one who wouldn’t like more fund­ing, even those in the “for­got­ten” sports ex­press a cer­tain af­fec­tion for the sta­tus quo.

Con­sider U.S. speed-skater Nick Pear­son, 30, who is sched­uled to com­pete in the 500-and 1000-me­ter events in Van­cou­ver. In Novem­ber, when he was in Berlin for the World Cup, he was con­tacted for an

in­ter­view. He e-mailed back ask­ing if it could wait un­til he was home. “It’s just quite ex­pen­sive to have my phone turned on over here,” Pear­son ex­plained. De­spite be­ing a vet­eran of the 2002 Olympic team, he still has to buy his own skates.

Speed­skat­ing, biathlon, and kayak­ing could all be hurt by bud­get cuts

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