More than 10,000 athletes from around the world will compete in the upcoming Beijing Olympics. All have the same dream, to win a gold medal. But not all dreams are equal. Athletic training costs money, so athletes from rich nations will most likely win more medals than those from poor countries. How a country funds its Olympic program is not only an indicator of likely success, it also reflects each nation's social and political values. Brian Padden has the story, with additional reporting from Barry Newhouse and Wajid Hosseinin in Islamabad; Cathy Majtenyi in
Nairobi; Michael O’Sullivan in Los Angeles; Peter Fedynsky in Moscow, and
Roger Hsu in Detroit. (Part 1 of 5)
In many countries, the military has traditionally supported Olympic programs. In Pakistan, where the armed forces play a prominent role in society, the national champion in rifle marksmanship, Sadiq Umeri, serves in Pakistan's army.
"I feel very proud, and it's a great pleasure to be selected for the Olympics," said Umeri. "And getting an award or medal is not really my goal - that's mainly about luck - but I will try to do my best. And I'm not going to disappoint my country."
Kenya's Olympic program is entirely government-funded. The Kenyan Athletic Association says it has a $1.5 million Olympic budget and intends to send 80 athletes to the games.
One of its best hopes for an Olympic medal is Robert Cheruiyot, a four-time winner of the Boston marathon. "When I am running, I can hear the national anthem of Kenya," said Cheruiyot. "When I train I can hear the national anthem of Kenya."
But while Cheruiyot is proud to represent his country, he says he has not yet received any government funds. David Wallechinsky is the author of several books about the Olympics. He says some government-sponsored Olympic programs are poorly managed. "The problem is, like anything else you put the government in charge of, there is a certain amount of corruption in some of these countries," notes Wallechinsky. "A lot of the officials take most of the money, and it doesn't really get to the athletes. Not all countries are like that, but it is quite common."
At the height of the cold war, athletes from the Soviet Union were dependent on government money, but today Russia is more market-oriented. Public funding is supplemented with private sponsorship.
But Russian Olympic cyclist Sergei Ruban says sponsors are only interested in sports that are popular on television. He says companies want the publicity that comes from being associated with popular athletes. "Everybody today is interested in a product, a spectacle that makes for good TV," explains Ruban. "Unfortunately, many sports don't fit in. They aren't developed or structured to create an interesting TV product. Accordingly, sports that do not get on TV have no sponsors."
The United States is one of only three countries where Olympic athletes receive no government funding. Instead the U.S. Olympic Committee relies exclusively on income from the sale of television broadcast rights and from corporate sponsors. Steve Roush, chief of sports performance with the U.S. Olympic Committee, says while the system is not political, the U.S. Olympic program must compete for sponsors with professional teams.
"We are in a tough economic situation now, and therefore there is less corporate [funding] to be had for sponsorship," says Roush. "And we are in a competitive marketplace with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the [National Hockey League]."
He says, like in Russia, corporate sponsors in the U.S. favor popular sports over others. Many Olympic gold medal winners from the United States later make millions of dollars by advertising products. For less popular sports like distance running, there are creative private initiatives to help support the athletes. Keith Hanson and his brother own shoe stores in the Midwestern city of Detroit. They provide distance runners with free housing, health insurance, coaching, free running shoes and gear, and part-time jobs in their stores.
"One nice thing about our country is that we do have private individuals who can then step up and take over these responsibilities that many think the governing body should do," says Hanson.
While every Olympic program in the world would like more money, funding is limited and tied to a nation's economic status and political system.