(Before getting too far, condolences are due to the family and many friends of basketball superstar – and two-time Olympic gold medalist – Kobe Bryant, who perished along with eight others in a helicopter crash on Sunday morning in Calabasas, California, northwest of Los Angeles. This unimaginable tragedy killed Bryant, just 41, and his daughter Gianna, among others.)
One of the most compelling aspects of online coverage of almost anything is the responses that come from readers. Over the last couple of week, two-time racewalk Olympian Allen James commented that the IOC’s regulation of protests at the Games “is not fair” and places athletes in “indentured servitude to the IOC” because they are not paid for participating.
U.S. Sports Academy Chief Executive T.J. Rosandich replied, noting “I think Allen James missed a very important point. One of the bedrock principles of the law of sports (based on British Common Law – the law of associations) is that the organization throwing the party, gets to set the rules. If you don’t want to play by the rules, then don’t come to the party… “
James wrote back:
“Totally agree, but that wasn’t my point. Athletes deserve to be paid!! I used the protest issue to talk about a much bigger issue, athlete compensation from an industry making millions upon millions of dollars on the backs of athletes.”
This is hardly a new argument, but one which current International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach (GER) actually dealt with in some detail less than six months ago. It’s worth considering his comments to the General Assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) in Doha, Qatar last October. He said in part:
“Money for us is just a means to achieve our mission because if we consider the Olympic Games to be a business model, we would not have 206 National Olympic Committees and the athletes from the entire world in the Olympic Games. We would not have athletes from 33 or 28 sports in the Olympic Games. It would only be a very select group, a very select group of athletes, not even of National Olympic Committees, but a select group of athletes in a select group of some of the Olympic sports; and the Olympic Games, as we know them, and the Olympic Games as we want them, and the Olympic Games as they were conceived by Pierre de Coubertin 125 years ago, would cease to exist. We would just have another entertainment product in this world, competing with other entertainment products, but not related to any kind of values anymore; it would just be show, entertainment, without any values, without any contribution to a better society.
“And therefore, we will not consider the Olympic Games to be a business model. We all in this room, we want to accomplish our mission, and to achieve this we must show solidarity among us, the NOCs. There can be no NOC putting its interests first; no sport can put its interests first. No individual can put his or her interest first. We must all put our mission first and we must all think how we can contribute to accomplishing our mission and in doing so we must always keep solidarity and respect and unity in mind because only then we can accomplish it.”
So, if you’re Usain Bolt or Neymar or Katie Ledecky, you can be confident that your contribution to the success of the Olympic Games would result in a big payday if athletes were paid for their participation as a draw for worldwide viewers. But who would lose out?
The way Olympic television revenue is distributed to the International Federations gives us a clue. The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) coordinates this and the federations themselves agreed on five tiers of distribution for 2016 and the same for 2020 based on in-stadium attendance, worldwide viewing audience and other factors. Each tier gets less and less money:
● Tier 1: Athletics, Gymnastics, Aquatics
● Tier 2: Basketball, Cycling, Football, Tennis, Volleyball
● Tier 3: Archery, Badminton, Boxing, Judo, Rowing, Shooting, Table Tennis, Weightlifting
● Tier 4: Canoeing, Equestrian, Fencing, Handball, Hockey, Sailing, Taekwondo, Triathlon, Wrestling
● Tier 5: Modern Pentathlon (also Golf and Rugby as new sports for 2016)
Is there any doubt that in a world in which all Olympic athletes are paid an “appearance fee” to compete in the Games, the sports in Tiers 3-4-5 would disappear almost entirely?
Moreover, as part of Bach’s “Agenda 2020″ overhaul of the Games that was unanimously passed in 2014, the Olympic program for both the summer and winter Games was changed from competitions in “sports” to a program of “events.” So even where track & field would be included in a future Games with appearance fees, there is no certainty of which events would remain. The 100 meters? Sure. Would James’s race walks make it?
And in every event, the number of competitors would be many fewer than now. In the track & field and swimming events, no need for more than 16-18 competitors in any event and we would have semifinals and finals only. In team events, is there any need for more than six teams, with a round-robin to select the semifinalists?
As the Olympic Games is a modern reflection of the ancient Greek model, it’s worth noting that – so far as we know – the victors in the ancient Olympic Games did not receive money or prizes from the organizers. But they did receive significant, sometimes enormous, prizes from their home city or town that sent them to the event. The same is true today; Singapore’s Joseph Schooling’s upset win over Michael Phelps in the Rio 100 m Butterfly was worth $753,000 to him! The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee awards a lot less, but increased its gold-medal bonus from Rio ($25,000) to Tokyo ($37,500), with less for silver ($22,500) and bronze ($15,000).
But that’s for winning a medal, not for making it to the Games.
Bach defends what he calls the “Solidarity model” of the Games strongly, which sends about 90% of its revenue to others. Of its $5 billion in revenue from 2013-16, the IOC sent 49% ($2.449 billion) to the organizing committees of the Olympic, Winter and Youth Olympic Games and 30% to the International Federations and National Olympic Committees ($1.510 billion). Another 11% was spent on Olympic Solidarity programs for athlete training programs, athlete scholarships, plus anti-doping programs, support for the Olympic Channel and similar promotional programs. The IOC’s own operations were funded from the remaining 10%.
The IOC does not choose which athletes are allowed to compete in its Olympic Games. It agrees to a program of events and then provides a quota to each IF, which then decides the process of who will fill these spots. Under a pay-to-play system, as Bach noted, this would all go away.
There are many who feel as James does, that the blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get to the Olympic Games should be compensated in some way by the IOC, ignoring the same efforts made by thousands of athletes in sports not part of the Games. This much is sure: if the for-pay crowd ever gets its way, most will find that their Olympic experience will vanish long before an IOC wire transfer ever makes to their bank account.