Last weekend the United States Olympic Committee, using a giant crowbar, opened its pocketbook and dangled cash in front of American athletes. The USOC announced that it will pay Americans $15,000 for an Olympic gold medal, $10,000 for a silver medal and $7,500 for a bronze medal.
Congratulations. Operation Gold is definitely a step in the right direction and long overdue, but, at the risk of bursting someone's bubble, couldn't the USOC have done better?Fifteen thousand dollars? Michael Jordan puts more than that on a putt. It's pocket change for a major league baseball player.
Well, the USOC makes it clear that it's not trying to make anyone rich, and that's fine and fair; it says it's only trying to defray costs for athletes in the non-marketable sports (read: anything besides basketball and tennis).
"These are successful people we would like to stay in the program and not, for monetary reasons, quit," says one USOC VP.
"Give me a break," says four-time Olympic steeplechaser Henry Marsh. "$15,000? C'mon, what's that going to do? It's a drop in the bucket except for a handful of athletes."
"My reaction is anything is better than nothing," says Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone. "It's a beginning. But $15,000 is not going to do much for anybody. It's not like it's going to keep anyone in their sport. Someone's not going to say, Well, should I get a job and work full time, or should I go for that $15,000."
The athletes deserve more. The USOC, along with the IOC, the IAAF, the USATF and all those other alphabet organizations that rule so-called amateur sport, have been using athletes for decades to rake in millions of dollars (via commercial sponsorship, TV money, gate, etc.) and giving a mere pittance to the athletes in return, if anything at all.
All of this was originally done under the pretense of amateurism, an idea whose origins are so snobby (it was developed in 19th century England as a means of preventing the working classes from competing against the aristocracy) that its persistence boggles the mind. Incredibly, there are some who resist progress because they still hold to the notion of amateurism.
To its credit, the USOC is progressing. With a budget of $400 million for the current four years, the USOC has strived to cut the administrative costs and overhead that were draining much of its resources before they reached the athletes.
"Now it's a question of priority: What's the best way to use the money?" says Marsh.
Marsh has a unique perspective on the situation. Not only was he an Olympic athlete, but he was president of the USOC's athletes' advisory committee and served on the USOC's executive board.
"The athletes need money before they get the gold medal, not after," says Marsh. "Then you've already done it. You've arrived. You can do advertising or something to make money then. The bottom line is the USOC should be concerned with developing athletes so that they can reach their potential without having to quit."
And there are better ways to do it than Operation Gold as it now stands.
1) Increase the pitiful $2,500 that the USOC awards annually to athletes who finish the year ranked among the top eight Americans in their sport. Many of the Olympic sports are already top-heavy anyway. An Olympic champion - say, a Carl Lewis - is already making a healthy living from his sport. The money needs to filter down deeper to developing talent.
2) Take Marsh's suggestion, which is so simple and plausible it's a wonder it hasn't been adopted: "Make it like the professional sports," he says. "If you make the national team, you get a minimum player contract and you get to share in the TV revenues."
3) Beef up the money for Olympic medals. Even Marsh, while believing money is more effective in helping an athlete win a medal rather than as an award after the fact, concedes there must be incentives. Spain, for instance, offered $80,000 for a gold medal last summer, plus a $1 million pension, and watched its gold medal count soar to 13 - after winning four in all the previous Olympics combined. Surely, the USOC, if nothing else, could sign a sponsor to pay the medalists, as Spain did.
This is the Olympics. It comes around only once every four years and features the best athletes in the world. Surely an Olympic champion deserves more than $15,000, which works out to $3,750 per year if you accept the concept that it takes four years to prepare for the Games.
Perhaps the USOC would do well to look at the ancient Olympic Games. In David Wallechinsky's Book of the Olympic Games, he writes, "Contrary to popular belief, the Ancient Greek athletes were not amateurs. Not only were they fully supported for almost a year prior to the Olympics, but even though a winner received only an olive wreath at the Games, back home he was amply rewarded and could become quite rich."
David Young, a professor of classics at the University of California-Santa Barbara, has calculated, based on historical evidence, that Athens paid its Olympic champions the equivalent of $338,800 tax free - an amount that a skilled craftsman of the time could expect to earn in 14 years.
That's a far cry from Operation Gold.