If you are an fan of Track and Field, show your support by Tweeting “I support Olympic Athletes #SolesForSoul.” And if you are inclined, please include a photo of your bare feet.
Sometimes it’s important to look at history to get a better understanding of where we are going. Of course future generations can always make drastic changes that create unintentional results, but most of the time flaws in the system are easily fixed with minor corrections. In 1978 the late Senator Ted Stevens wrote a piece of legislation resulting in a major change that created an organization to govern and oversee the Olympics in the United States so that this movement would not fall victim to cronyism and corruption and brutal competition for control amongst the NCAA and the AAU.
The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 provided a clear charter for the USOC. Furthermore, it declared the newly minted organization the steward of all things Olympic in the United States, including ownership of the name “Olympic” and “Olympiad” as well as oversight of all current and future national governing bodies. The act went on to say that the USOC will not receive federal or state funding. It will be run like a business. Whether intentional or not, the bill made one important provision to ensure the protection of athletes’ rights – 20% of all voting board members and committees must be active athletes. It’s unclear in my research as to how this provision impacted the initial structure of the USOC, but it did seem to encourage a committee based organization structure. A massive board of 123 members (I have, also, seen 124) plus a 20- member executive committee oversaw nearly every aspect of the organization. The convoluted mess of an organization chart seemed befitting for a non-profit with a mission to aid amateur athletes across dozens of sports and hundreds of events. As one might imagine, this organization suffered many setbacks. It was not designed for efficiency.
In 1984 Peter Ueberroth aggressively recruited sponsors for the Los Angeles Olympic Games. These games were the first privately funded Olympics in history. Mr. Ueberroth was so successful that the LA organizing committee ran a $250 million surplus. I’ve heard it said from multiple people LA’s success saved the Olympic Games. This new model provided the framework for the International Olympic Committee’s Tiered Olympic Partner program. These two evolutions changed the entire nature of the Olympic movement. The brand now had the money befitting such a storied and important movement.
Revenues continued to grow, but the organization didn’t mature with the growth. Complex business deals most likely overwhelmed the volunteers and athletes in charge of oversight, allowing for those in charge to wield more power without an intelligent check and balance. It didn’t take long before corruption and cronyism ran rampant throughout the USOC and many of the national governing bodies. As a result In 2003, a senate committee recommended ”drastic, far-reaching ” changes in the USOC. At the top of the list, the 124-member board should be cut to 9.
The staff, to be led by a chief executive, would run the show, reporting to a slimmed-down board of directors dominated by independent members of the “highest character and integrity,” and with “significant professional success and commitment to public services.” The volunteers would be largely reduced to a debating society, and that at a once-a-year assembly.
LA Times, Alan Abrahamson 6/20/2003
After the dust settled, the USOC looked and acted very differently. Yes, it’s a lot more efficient as a business, but something is missing – it’s SOUL.
The money involved in the Olympic movement is staggering. Many of the revenues are already locked in thanks to the revenue sharing agreement with the IOC. That agreement awards the USOC 12.75% of all television rights; that’s 12.75% of $4.38 billion between 2014 and 2020. It’s asinine to imagine a volunteer capable of managing even a small portion of this business, let alone an athlete with zero business experience. It does require true professionals to run this organization who have honed their respective crafts over years. But it’s equally asinine to assume that someone from another professional sports or for-profit business can begin to understand the purpose of the USOC. By no fault of their own, these outsiders can’t help but exploit athletes in the name of the “greater good.” This business is not about enriching the coffers of the USOC or earning your bonus. It’s about enriching the experience of the Olympic hopeful and providing support to the Olympian. The volunteers got that. So while they failed miserably at the business side, they would fight viscously for their cause, OUR cause. Admittedly, some were crooks, but even the crooks had soul.
As I sit here writing this, I’m fuming over the latest fumble by these “professionals.” Just this past week you announced that all athletes must wear USOC sponsor footwear on the awards podium. Do you know that most apparel sponsors of Olympic athletes place value on even the remote chance that one of their athletes will wear their shoes on the podium? Did you know that this rule diminishes the value of every US athlete in the sport of track and field? Are you prepared to compensate the athletes and the sport of track and field should sponsors begin to cut already tight sports marketing budgets?
This rule will have a long-term impact on Olympic athletes in the US, because these non-Olympic partners pay athletes when you don’t. The Adidas, Asics, Brooks, Li-Ning, New Balance, Nike,Reebok, Saucony, and Under Armor’s (and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a few) are there for us when you’re not. No, I know you think you’re there for the athletes, but you’re not. These sponsors and the NCAA provide most of the direct support to athletes. Without their commitment to these sports, few athletes would be able to continue past high school.
It’s my hope that this doesn’t mark the start of an increasingly aggressive plan to restrict athletes’ rights. It’s my hope that it’s not too late. There are countless examples of tyrants exploiting the weakness of a large, fragmented groups incapable of defending themselves. That’s why it’s important for athletes’ organizations to grow in size, scope and influence, because if the powers that be are left to their own devices they will take full ownership of all aspects of the sport including the athletes.
As I wrap up I hope that you all see this isn’t about the soles we wear. It’s about the soul of the Olympics. The spirit of Olympism speaks about the struggle, but it doesn’t mean you have to make it more difficult for the athletes.
To track and field fans and my fellow athletes, I hope you’ll join me in posting pictures of your bare feet online as a sign of solidarity (on Twitter using hashtag #solesforsoul). Bare your soles for our soul.