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Nations Struggle to Fund Olympic Dreams

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More than 10,000 athletes from around the world will compete in the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.  All of them have the same dream -- to win a gold medal.  But not all dreams are equal. Athletes from rich nations will most likely win more medals than those from poor countries. How a country funds its Olympic program not only is an indication of likely success, but also a reflection of a nation's social and political values. 

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.  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," says Umeri.

Kenya's Olympic program is entirely government-funded.  The Kenyan Athletic Association says it has a 1.5 million dollar 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 run, I can hear in my mind the national anthem of Kenya -- when I am running.  When I training, sometimes, I can hear the national anthem of Kenya," he says. But while Cheruiyot is proud to represent his country, he says he has not yet received any government funds. 

Politics, Business and Sports Collide

David Wallechinsky is the author of several books about the Olympics. He says some government-sponsored Olympic programs are poorly managed. "I think that the advantage of government sponsorship is that you're more likely to support athletes in smaller sports or less high profile sports.  The problem is like anything else, you put the government in charge, there is a certain amount of corruption in some of these countries.  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," says Wallechinsky.  "So there is a downside or upside to both systems." 

At the height of the Cold War, athletes from the Soviet Union were dependent on government money. 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," says 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 American Challenge

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 Sport Performance with the U.S. Olympic Committee. "My experience has been that in the dialogue I've had with other national Olympic Committee staff members is that there is far less pressure when it comes to who's getting the tickets, who's getting the accreditations at the Olympics.  Many times, decisions they have to make are political decisions on taking care of all the ministers who have decided they want to come to the Olympics.  For us, we keep it clean. We look at performance enhancing support personnel such as coaches, sports scientists.  So it allows us to stay out of the political fray."

Roush says that while the system is not political, the U.S. Olympic program must compete with professional sports teams for sponsors. "We are in a tough economic situation now.  Therefore, there are fewer corporate dollars to be had for sponsorship.  And we are in a competitive marketplace with the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the NHL [i.e., the National Hockey League] and NASCAR [i.e., the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing]," says Roach.  "And so, they are looking at where they get the most out of their investment.  And that's a challenge.  On an economic downturn, it isn't as abundant."

Roush says, like in Russia, corporate sponsors in the United States favor popular sports.  Many Olympic gold medal winners from the U.S. 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 U.S. Midwestern city of Detroit.  They provide distance runners with free housing, health insurance, coaching, running shoes and gear as well as part-time jobs in their stores. "One nice thing about our country is that we do have private individuals who can step up and take over these responsibilities that many think the governing body [i.e., the United States Olympic Committee] 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.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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