As strange as it may seem, even after nearly three weeks of non-stop athletic drama, even after nearly 11,000 participants from more than 200 countries have competed for a total of 302 gold medals, we still don’t really know who the “real winners” will be for the 2012 London Olympics, when all is said and done.
When I say “real winners,” I don’t mean, like, the 100-meter dash, the long jump, or the all-around gymnastic competition. We do know that. That’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m referring, instead, to which organizations, which athletes, will come away from London with an economic advantage, and which ones — medal or no medal — absolutely will not.
According to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) own recent report, the organization generated $5.4 billion in the four-year period up to, and including, the 2008 Olympics, in Beijing. Indications are that IOC revenues for the four-year period ending at the London event will be in the astounding range of $7 billion.
The IOC claims, with a perfectly straight face, that 90 percent of all of that cash, including the $1.2 billion it received from its broadcast sponsor, NBC Universal, goes to support “organizations throughout the Olympic Movement,” and that it only retains about 10 percent of that to cover its own administrative expenses.
Despite those very noble sentiments, when you do the math, you see that, after London, Beijing and all of the other Summer Olympics events before that, U.S. athletes — on the whole — have come away holding the short end of the stick.
It’s not that the IOC is broke — not even close. In fact, on July 23, the International Olympic Organizing Committee announced that its financial situation was “strong and safe,” that it was in possession of $588 million in reserves (up from $105 million in 2001) and that television and sponsorship revenues are continuing to increase. IOC President Jacques Rogge even went on to say that the Committee’s financial plan calls for surpassing $4 billion in TV rights for the next Olympics, up from $3.9 billion generated, leading up to London.
At about the same time, the IOC also confirmed that, up through 2021, its U.S. arm, the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), would participate in 12 percent of all IOC TV broadcasting rights fees and 20 percent of all fees generated from the 11 “TOP” Olympic corporate sponsors, an amount estimated at an additional $957 million, as of July, 2012. That, by the way, doesn’t even include revenues from domestic sponsorships generated directly by the USOC.
Again, let’s do the math, but this time let’s focus on the participation of the athletes, themselves, in all of that loot. Adding the USOC’s 12 percent of the $3.9 billion in TV rights, together with its 20 percent of the $957 million in “TOP” sponsor fees, gives the USOC about $659 million in revenues, in those two categories, alone.
And what part of that is shared with the athletes? Not much, it seems.
In London, for example, other than travel expenses, the 530 American Olympians received no direct financial support from the federal government. Aside from the honor of representing their country, U.S. athletes could only look forward to receiving financial rewards if they happened to actually win a gold, silver or bronze medal. Such an accomplishment would earn them $25,000, $15,000 or $10,000, respectively.
According to the most recent count, as of Friday, U.S. athletes had earned 90 medals, in all, 30 gold, 25 silver and 26 bronze. That adds up to $1,610,000, or just .02 percent of the $659 million of USOC revenues. I don’t know ... it just seems as though they could do substantially more.
According to Matt Rudnitzky of Sports Grid, 50 percent of U.S. athletes who rank in the top 10 in their events in track and field earn less than $15,000 annually, including sponsorships, grants and prize money. And, contrary to the popular perception that all Olympic athletes are living the lush life of swimmer Michael Phelps, whose estimated net worth following the Beijing Olympics jumped to $50 million as a result of endorsements from VISA, Powerball, Omega, Subway, AT&T Wireless and Speedo, the overwhelming majority of Olympic athletes go without any endorsement income at all, have to work part-time jobs to continue their training schedules and to support their families, and live essentially, from week-to-week and hand-to-mouth.
Perhaps that’s why, shortly after their arrival in London, several prominent U.S. athletes took to Twitter and spoke to traditional media outlets to register their formal complaints about the fact that Olympic athletes don’t participate, at a more reasonable level, in the Olympic Committee’s substantial profits.
In that regard, two of my newest hero-athletes now include Sanya Richards-Ross, this year’s women’s 400 meter gold medal winner and Nick Symmonds, a very accomplished, high-profile 800 meter runner. Richards exposed herself to great personal and financial risk when she said, “I just believe that the Olympic ideal and the Olympic reality are now different. I’ve been fortunate to do very well around the Olympics, but so many of my peers struggle in the sport.” Similarly, Symmonds, a guy I never previously cared very much about, did not hesitate, at all, to crawl out on the same financial limb that Sanya chose for herself, when he asked, very publicly: “How many have gotten rich using Olympic athletes’ free labor?”
My kind of people. I hope the IOC and the USOC were listening.
A large part of the protest by those two and by other courageous athletes, related to an IOC regulation called Rule 40, which prohibits Olympic athletes from advertising for non-Olympic sponsors, immediately prior to, or during, the Olympics.
What set off the athletes was the fact that the IOC went so far as to prohibit the Olympians from using their own Facebook or Twitter accounts to mention, or to depict themselves, in photos with products of their “personal sponsors.” Those sponsors are the same advertisers who, individually, provide revenues to the athletes during the course of the year, when the IOC and the USOC don’t.
For many athletes that was the final indignity. They began to use the hashtags #Wedemandchange and #Rule40 to make their case to the world. One of the most creative expressions was by American hurdler/silver medalist Dawn Harper, who tweeted a photo of herself with a duct tape gag over her mouth, on which the words “Rule 40” were printed.
It’ll be interesting to see how all that turns out.
In the meantime, I won’t be surprised at all to continue to see stories that give the false impression that most of our hard-working, Olympic athletes are already doing just fine, because 2008 gymnast Shawn Johnson became a “media darling” and is now worth an estimated $9 million; because Nastia Liukin, who won five gold medals as an Olympic gymnast, in the same year, now pulls down about $1 million annually in endorsements, or because the greatest sprinter in world history, Usain Bolt, earned about $20 million, in 2012.
Each of those deserving athletes is to be commended for being able to capitalize on their hard work and Olympic success. I can only hope that other young Olympians, such as Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Claressa Shields, Missy Franklin and Ashton Eaton can, somehow, follow their lead.
At the same time, we should remember that well-compensated and fairly compensated Olympians are still very much the absolute exception to the rule, and we should keep our eye on the larger ball.
It’s still too early to say, for certain, who the real winners of the London Olympics actually were. We’ll find out, shortly.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.