Anti-doping effort details toll on athletes
What’s the financial cost of poor anti-doping controls in the Olympics? It’s difficult to put an exact price on it, but it’s real, say U.S. athletes and executives across the American Olympic community.
On Oct. 27, an international coalition of athletes and their anti-doping agencies launched a social media campaign to convey the pain of losing medals to competitors who were doping. Called #MyMoment, it’s a collection of personal anecdotes from athletes who couldn’t celebrate victories they should have been able to, or fear they won’t at the Pyeongchang Olympics in February.
The campaign doesn’t talk about money, but that’s a big part of the loss, said American biathlete Lowell Bailey, who is favored to win the U.S.’s first medal in that sport.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, independent of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is joined in the #MyMoment campaign by its equivalent from Germany, Canada, Austria, the U.K., Japan and South Korea, along with athletes from those countries as well.
Virtually all of a U.S. Olympic athlete’s income is tied to competition results to one extent or another. They don’t earn a standard salary and therefore are compensated through grants from the USOC, sponsorships and cash incentives for medals, all of which are diminished by losing. And while several American athletes have been retroactively awarded medals when doping investigations finally led to banishment for those who beat them, they can never regain the immediate marketability generated by an Olympic victory in the Games-time spotlight.
The campaign comes as pressure grows on the International Olympic Committee to decide punishment — or not — for the Russian team as the calendar winds toward Pyeongchang in February. In 2016, independent investigators published damning reports finding that the Russian government orchestrated an elaborate scheme to conceal illegal doping during the 2014 Sochi Games, including winners of 15 medals.
On Nov. 1, the IOC permanently banned and revoked medals won by two Russian athletes, which was cheered as a precedent-setting first step in U.S. circles. But most of the cases remain undecided.
The USOC values medals literally. It awards athletes $37,500 for Olympic gold medals, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze, and lesser sums for world championship medals during non-Olympic years.
Furthermore, the USOC’s high-performance grants for national sport governing bodies are influenced by medal results, on the basis that championships are the core mission of the team and medals are primarily what the sponsorship market values. Those grants determine how many athletes get advanced support in a given sport.
“The USOC looks very, very closely at this,” said U.S. Biathlon CEO Max Cobb. “They regard it as an investment, and if it doesn’t look like you’re on a successful trajectory, you can see a 50 percent swing in funding.”
For individuals, a medal — or at least the high probability of one in the future — is virtually a prerequisite to serious endorsement income, and sponsors are seeking an immediate return that’s not likely to be there if the cheating is eventually punished years later and medals are reallocated.
USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said the entire Olympic movement’s value will decline if it’s not seen as serious about fair competition. That could cause it to eventually lose pricing power with sponsors and media rights holders.
“At the end of the day, it impacts the athletes, but it impacts all of us,” Blackmun said, adding praise for the initial steps taken by the IOC last week. “It impacts the IOC, it impacts the USOC. When you’re part of a value-based movement and you have threats to those values, which doping certainly is, you have to take it seriously.”
If sponsors or broadcasters believe doping is hurting their Olympic business, they won’t say so. In a survey submitted to the 33 USOC and IOC sponsors seeking comment, four responded with no comment. Most did not acknowledge the request.
USADA CEO Travis Tygart said the #MyMoment campaign isn’t intended to influence pending cases. But he wants to build pressure.
“Sport politicians sometimes only do what the public is demanding what they do, not necessarily doing the right things for the right reasons,” Tygart said.