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Volume 20 No. 46
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Medal-rich teams draw even more funding from USOC in 2016

Editor’s note: This story is updated from the print edition.

When it comes to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s cash aid to individual Olympic sports teams, the rich are getting richer.

In 2016, not surprisingly, more funding went to medal heavyweights such as swimming, track and field and gymnastics, while grants fell precipitously for sports like field hockey and badminton, according to newly published USOC tax filings.

Across all 30 summer national governing bodies that existed in both 2012 and 2016, funding was up 3.3 percent to $37.3 million. But track and field grew by 10.2 percent, gymnastics by 9.7 percent and swimming by 6.8 percent (see chart). Combined, those sports won 77 of Team USA’s 121 medals in Rio.

Under CEO Scott Blackmun, the USOC has continued shifting away from a baseline funding approach to one explicitly designed to generate as many medals as possible, under the premise that medals are the best way to generate commercial revenue.

Going For Gold

U.S. Summer Olympics national governing bodies that received more than $1 million from the USOC in 2016

Body 2016 funding % growth over 2012 Rio medals
Track & Field $5,171,079 10.2% 32
Swimming $4,446,518 6.8% 33
Gymnastics $2,973,099 9.7% 12
Shooting $2,229,798 -7.6% 3
Volleyball $1,972,677 11.3% 3
Cycling $1,967,173 27.5% 5
Rowing $1,923,053 10.4% 2
Wrestling $1,817,360 23.1% 3
Diving $1,498,226 -1.6% 3
Water Polo $1,191,216 -10.5% 1
Triathlon $1,116,789 37.0% 1
Sailing $1,081,519 -24.2% 1
Basketball $1,037,230 1.6% 2
Rugby* $1,034,816 78.7% 0
Equestrian $1,010,000 -17.3% 3
Totals^ $37,334,078 3.3% 121

* Rugby became an Olympic sport in 2016.
^ Totals are for all 30 NGBs that existed in both 2012 and 2016; USA Golf was established in 2013.
Source: U.S. Olympic Committee IRS form 990

“USOC funding definitely makes a difference for us in track and field, and specifically our high-performance programs,” said USA Track & Field CMO Jill Geer. “We actually really appreciate the clarity USOC gives us, that all NGBs have to essentially justify the USOC’s investment with medal production.”

USATF’s Olympic-year funding grew to nearly $5.2 million in 2016, after receiving $4.7 million in 2012. The team won 32 medals in Rio, up from 28 in London. Gymnastics was another example of a funding boost correlating with more medals, with a 9.7 percent boost to nearly $3 million and a record 12 medals.

On the other extreme, U.S. Synchronized Swimming sent only a duet pair to the 2012 Games, failing to qualify as a full team, and learned in 2015 that it would not be receiving any high-performance aid in 2016, when it again only sent a duet pair. (The tax returns show a grant of $101,000, down nearly 73 percent from 2012, money due to the body outside of its performance grant.) That was not a surprise, said CEO Myriam Glez, adding the USOC has communicated its intentions clearly.

Nevertheless, “It’s a real challenge for an organization like us, because we fight against countries that are government funded; they receive an enormous amount of money,” Glez said. “It’s a Catch-22. How do you go back to the top of the rankings when you’re not financially supported, when the athletes have to pay for everything?”

The tax filings may include funds not related to the high-performance plans, and on a detailed level are not directly comparable because of how developmental and preparation timelines differ. USA Golf, for instance, got a bronze medal from PGA Tour player Matt Kuchar, while USA Gymnastics develops its stars in a painstaking process that starts in childhood.

But in general, the 2016 grants reflect an assessment by the USOC in late 2015 of how the NGBs have performed recently and how likely their athletes were to medal in Rio. Overall, the funding increases correlate with success, but there are some exceptions. USRowing and USA Wrestling, for instance, saw double-digit gains but posted fewer medals in 2016. On the other hand, USA Fencing’s funding was flat but the fencers won four medals in Rio, up from one in London.