Perhaps, like many of us here at the office, you were one of the nearly nine million Americans who recently received a note from Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). The note began: "Somewhere in a lonely field in Kansas a 15-year-old boy jumps as far as he can. Is he the next Carl Lewis?"
It was a charming image, and if it touched you, you may have been moved to write a check to the USOC. Later you may have wondered where that money went.
America's athletes certainly do. Of the USOC's operating budget of $149.9 million for the current (1985-88) quadrennium, only $2.2 million has gone directly to prospective Olympians, via a program called Operation Gold. That breaks down to 1.5 cents of every dollar. Granted, about 20 cents of each dollar was divvied up among the 34 national governing bodies (NGBs)—there is a governing body overseeing each Olympic sport—which in turn passed on varying amounts to their athletes. Still, the USOC money given directly to athletes, primarily for living expenses while in training, was less than the amount spent on travel, meals and lodging by the 30-odd committees that report to the USOC's executive board. (For a complete breakdown of where a USOC dollar goes, see the chart on this page.)
If you love bureaucracies, you will adore the USOC, an umbrella organization whose concerns extend far beyond the American Olympic movement. Too far, as we shall see. Disorganized, poorly focused and undercapitalized, the USOC is badly in need of restructuring, leadership and, yes, money.
"We're an organization of organizations," USOC officials frequently point out. The USOC's member organizations include the 38 NGBs of the sports that are included in the Olympic and/or the Pan American games. That number will increase to 40 in 1989 when badminton and bowling are added to the lists. In addition to the NGBs, a variety of other organizations involved—some very tangentially—in sports are USOC members. The Catholic Youth Organization is one, and so is the National Exploring Division of the Boy Scouts. The NCAA, the NAIA and the YMCA are members, as are the Olympic organizations of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, plus seven national sports organizations for the disabled (chart at right).
"Ballroom dancing was just barely voted down as a USOC member," says Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "Our meetings are like a circus. Someone stands up and says, I think we should be in the hot dog business." Two or three guys nod their heads. And you know what? Pretty soon we're in the hot dog business."
Even Helmick, who has served as USOC president since 1985, recognizes that his organization has big shortcomings. In a dreadful case of timing—during the Calgary Winter Olympics—he announced the appointment of the so-called Steinbrenner Commission, a task force headed by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to review the USOC structure and recommend changes. "Personally, I think we should narrow our focus," says Helmick. "We can't be all things to all people, and since 1978 there has been a tendency to try to be that."
To understand why, a little background is necessary. The USOC, under various names, has been around since 1896, when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens. In the early years the organization's energies were directed solely toward selecting which athletes and teams would compete for the U.S. in the Games, arranging travel for athletes and coaches, and representing the U.S. in the international Olympic movement. The training of U.S. athletes was left up to organizations such as the AAU and the NCAA.
Things started to change after the U.S. fared poorly against the Soviets and East Germans in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. President Gerald Ford asked for an official look at the U.S. Olympic effort. He formed the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, which made two primary recommendations: that an efficient central organization coordinate the development of amateur sport in the U.S. and that it be given a one-time infusion of $215 million in (presumably federal) funds, to be supplemented by an annual budget of $83 million, also from government coffers.
Congress duly passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which designated the USOC as honcho of amateur sports development in the U.S. But Congress never approved that $215 million grant or the $83 million annual allocation. As a result, the USOC receives virtually no government support.