How a presidential commission, Alaska senator struck gold
The Olympic and Paralympic Games are an impressive worldwide endeavor. They are a display of human strength and performance at its pinnacle. They inspire, empower, motivate and instill national pride at the highest degree.
For the United States, participation alone has never been the objective of the Games. As characterized by U.S. short-track speedskater and eight-time medalist Apolo Ohno, “the privilege of representing your country in worldwide competition is profound, but to win for your country … to win is epic. Standing on the medal podium and hearing your anthem play is an experience that can’t be put into words.”
Few other countries enjoy our level of performance in both the Summer and Winter Games with such regularity. This has not always been the case, however. The U.S.’s Olympic history is actually quite complex, and its rise toward the top of the medal table was powerfully affected by a piece of federal legislation that passed in 1978. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act has had a prolific impact on our athletes’ ability to compete and win at the highest levels.
Incredibly, the United States is one of the only countries whose Olympic program isn’t government funded. Most of the world’s national Olympic committees get their funding directly from national governments, guaranteeing a financial base to attract, train and support athletes. So despite a large talent pool, the U.S. encountered many obstacles on its way to Olympic excellence. In the mid-1970s, the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports assembled an extensive report on why our athletes, particularly in mid- and low-profile sports, were not competing as well as other countries. The report stated, “Against athletes from nations for whom Olympic medals are as precious as moon rocks, U.S. competitors seem to have steadily diminishing chances of success.”
The commission and its report led to the Ted Stevens Act, championed by Alaska Senator Ted Stevens and signed into effect by President Jimmy Carter in 1978. The act includes a number of important elements, but one of the most important areas this legislation sought to address was an organized and sustainable basis for securing funding to support America’s elite athletes.
The commission noted “the system for allowing [our finest athletes] to develop is disorganized and woefully underfunded,” but that “the well-spring of public support for our OIympic athletes and our Olympic team … can be tapped without reliance upon federal funding and the federal strings which would surely follow.” The commission’s suggestion to seek public funding led to a robust sponsorship program, and today the U.S. Olympic Committee harnesses the power of the Olympic and Team USA brands to operate and grow these programs successfully. These funds are used in three primary ways. First, the funds support America’s athletes with direct athlete funding, financial support and technology support. Second, the funds support the national governing bodies (NGBs), which facilitate athlete growth and development. And third, the funds support athlete training, medicine, nutrition, education and safety programs that benefit elite athletes across the country.
“I’m living proof that the USOC’s ability to generate revenue and direct those funds to athlete support is absolutely critical to the success of elite athletes across the Olympic and Paralympic sport spectrum,” says Steve Mesler, Olympic bobsled gold medalist and CEO of the nonprofit education organization Classroom Champions, who also serves as a member of the USOC board of directors. “My ability to pursue my goals in bobsled flatly would not have been possible without this system, especially given the importance of innovation and technology in my sport.”
Beyond funding, the USOC provides coordination, recognition, dispute resolution and a host of other forms of support to more than 50 NGBs and related sport organizations across the country, allowing these independent, nonprofit entities to train, support and prepare their athletes to join Team USA.
“The USOC has traveled light years in its governance and ability to properly lead the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movement since my own days as an Olympic-level athlete,” says bronze medal-winning rower Anita De Frantz, whose remarkable Olympic career has gone on to include International Olympic Committee membership and vice presidency, as well as service as a member of the USOC board of directors. “I’m proud to have been a part of and a witness to this progress, and so much of it all started with the Ted Stevens Act’s bold and innovative approach. Sen. Stevens’ leadership was instrumental for the USOC’s current success.”
Where does all of this lead? At the most recent Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Team USA finished fourth in overall medal count out of more than 90 countries competing, while at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Games, Team USA topped the medal table with American athletes earning a historic 36 medals. At the prior Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. topped the medal table in every category, leading all nations with 121 medals. Truly great results for a nation and its elite athletes.
So, as we look forward to the Olympic and Paralympic Games and future years of building on the United States’ enviable position as an elite performer on the global sporting scene and to supporting America’s athletes as they strive to achieve their dreams, it’s worthwhile to remember the key building blocks in our progress so far, and that the 40-year-old Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act remains an all-important part of that foundation.
Chris McCleary is general counsel of the United States Olympic Committee. Joel Feldman is a sports and entertainment trademark attorney at Greenberg Traurig LLP.