As the U.S. trailed China in the gold medal chase early in the Beijing Games, it was inevitable that some media member would dust off a geopolitical story line and try to stir up a sports race between America and its newest archrival. On Aug. 13, just six days into the Games, the Financial Times did just that when it reported that the U.S. Olympic Committee’s response to China’s strong showing was to explore federal funding to boost America’s national Olympic sports programs.
USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel was quoted calling the Beijing Games “the most competitive ever” and then citing certain inequities in the global playing field, namely that the USOC is “one of the few Olympic committees in the world that doesn’t get funding from government” and is “not even in the top five” of national Olympic committees in terms of overall financial support.
As for the prospects of federal funding for the U.S. Olympic program, Seibel said “That is something we are going to have to assess. As all of this becomes more competitive, it is something we are heading towards.”
That was all FT reporter Roger Blitz needed to write the following: “In what has the potential to become a sporting version of the cold war, China has poured millions into its state sports system to produce medal winners at the Beijing Games, and the US is positioning itself to retaliate.”
Despite that journalistic leap, it was unclear how serious the USOC actually was about pursuing government funding. Surely, the USOC had to realize how a plea for public funds would play politically.
Yes, Americans tuned in to the Beijing Games in record numbers. Yes, they care very deeply about whether our athletes win. Yes, they expect to be the best in the world. But paying for it with tax dollars? That’s another story. With jobs heading overseas, crumbling infrastructure, a nationwide housing crisis, an ever-present terror threat — we’ve all seen the presidential campaign ads — it seemed far-fetched for the USOC to ask taxpayers to chip in so we can beat the Chinese in London in 2012.
Reached later during the Games, Seibel confirmed as much. Building on his earlier remarks, Seibel clarified that if there are thoughts within the USOC of pursuing federal funding, they were just that: thoughts. Furthermore, there is no timetable for when those thoughts might develop into something more.
While holding out the possibility it “may well look at whether it makes sense” at some point, Seibel said a concerted push by the USOC for public funds is “not something on the table right now.” (He did note that the USOC is working with the federal government on support for the U.S. Paralympics program, which the USOC also oversees — a different matter entirely.)
For now, the USOC’s plan to close the funding gap is to build on its current private sector support, be as efficient as possible with the resources it has and develop new revenue streams, such as a possible TV network. Excitement generated by the Beijing Games should help, as Seibel reports they already have received “several inquiries” from new corporate partners and a greater level of interest from private donors.
Frustrating as it may be to folks in Colorado Springs, those are their best options right now. Whether sooner or — as seems most likely — much later, the USOC would face a very tough political sell in defining the true public interest in taxpayer money for the Olympic program. The public would see clear benefits to the individual athletes, no doubt, and for NBC and for the various Olympic sponsors. But beyond some elusive quadrennial boost of the national psyche, the broader public benefit is harder to fathom.
As for China, we are in a real battle with them. But winning that competition will mean directing scarce federal dollars in other directions, like paying down our debt, targeting research and development in key growth industries, and improving math and science education. If the USOC were to send lobbyists up to Capitol Hill seeking money for a national sports program, it better have an answer for why gymnastics academies, to cite one example, should be included anywhere on that list.
There may be a better short-term idea on how to capitalize on renewed Olympic interest post-Beijing. How about a push for greater federal government support for youth sports, particularly in our public schools? More and more, communities under intense budget pressures are cutting physical education and sports in schools or charging fees that put athletics out of the reach of many families. The USOC could use an expected Beijing bounce to start a national grassroots effort to boost school sports so we can get our kids off the couch and into the game. By tying the effort to the national obesity epidemic, there would also be a children’s health hook.
Why copy the state-run model that works better in places where an authoritarian government decides winners and losers at age six? The USOC could boost its image through a national campaign to find the next generation of Olympic stars the democratic way, by giving every kid a chance at success. As Seibel himself acknowledged, “We have to be true to who we are, to what works for us as a culture and a society.” That may not be as sexy to some in the media as a global sports arms race, but it is a reality the USOC seems to accept — for now, at least.
Steve Bilafer is founding editor of SportsBusiness Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.