Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday July 24, 2021
Athletes need a bigger slice of Olympic pie
Money makes the world go round, as they say, and Exhibit A must surely be the Tokyo Olympics.
Thousands of athletes from more than 200 countries are literally flying around the world during a pandemic for these Games because of the billions of dollars the broadcast rights are worth to the International Olympic Committee.
There are incredible challenges to hosting and competing in the delayed 2020 Games, which opened on Friday against the desire of the Japanese public, but it’s good business. Indeed, American broadcast giant NBC has already said it expects these Games to be its most profitable ever.
But with all this money sloshing around why does so little of it get to the athletes — a.k.a. the talent that makes the whole show possible?
The Olympics abandoned its ideals of amateur sport decades ago; we all know that. But these COVID Games — in empty stadiums, with no family and friends to share the experience, and no socializing among athletes to somehow make the world a better place through sport — have stripped away whatever pretence was left that the Olympics are more than a gargantuan money-making TV show.
It’s time the athletes — supported by fans — band together to demand a greater share of the Games revenues.
The athletes who spend years training and competing for these few weeks, made all the harder this time by the pandemic, deserve a fairer share of the financial rewards.
Officially, the IOC is a not-for-profit but this is not some shaky charity — it’s a multi-billion-dollar behemoth. It has more than $5 billion (U.S.) in assets, a reserve fund around $1 billion and its average annual revenues exceed $1.4 billion.
The IOC likes to say it spends 90 per cent of its Olympic revenues to “assist athletes and develop sport worldwide.”
But the vast majority of that is spent on promoting the Olympic brand through a dizzying array of subsidiaries and affiliates, organizing future Games, and helping international sport federations and national Olympic committees. Not funding athletes.
The IOC spends a mere 4 per cent of its revenue directly on athletes through scholarships, grants and awards, according to a study by the Global Athlete advocacy group and Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management.
To put that in context, the players in the top professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey leagues get around 50 per cent of their league’s revenues.
It’s not directly comparable, of course, but it’s obvious the IOC should be directing a lot more of its extensive income to the athletes who make the Olympic show possible.
And if, as a consequence, the IOC had less money to spend on promoting itself, contributing to well-heeled middlemen and encouraging countries to take on appalling costs to host future Games, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Far from making life easy for athletes, the IOC has a rule that limits how much athletes can raise through their personal sponsors (should they be so lucky to have some) during the Games. It’s been relaxed recently, but not enough.
The truth is most Canadian Olympic athletes rely heavily on federal athlete assistance funding, side jobs, grants from the athlete charity CAN Fund, and the bank of mom and dad in order to train and compete at the level required for the Olympics.
Nationally carded athletes report an average annual income of $28,000 — about minimum wage — leaving them with a deficit of $22,000, states a Sport Canada report.
They’re spending more to live, train, travel and compete than they make from sport. The Olympics relies on athletes and their families being willing to do this year in and year out.
They put on the show and yet the lion’s share of the money never gets near their pockets. It’s long past time that changed.
Calls for a fairer distribution of Olympic dollars are long-standing. And, thankfully, an increasing number of groups are starting the work of organizing athletes from around the globe in dozens of sports to push for change.
The International Swimmers’ Alliance is working to increase athlete influence over the sport and improve the financial situation of its athletes.
The Athletics Association is looking to become a unifying and vocal voice for elite track and field athletes. Global Athlete wants to help drive a healthier power balance between athletes and sport leaders.
They’re all nascent movements and it will be an uphill battle. But it’s the right battle to take on.
The IOC makes more money. Broadcasters like NBC make more money. It’s time athletes got a bigger share.
Earlier this week, IOC president Thomas Bach updated the Olympic motto. It’s now Faster, Higher, Stronger — Together. The change, he said, was about adapting “to our times.”
Well, the Olympic funding model needs an update, too.
If we’re really in this together, the athletes who will entertain and inspire us over the next two weeks with all those faster, higher, stronger achievements should reap more of the rewards. (The Hamilton Spectator Editorial)