There were the usual hand-carved Cuban pork sandwiches, the lamb chops with chutney, the waiters carrying tuna tartar and the Sierra Nevada Pale Ales on ice. This was all under a gargantuan chandelier hanging above flat-screen televisions, and the music that pumped through sleek speakers was controlled by two men sitting behind a curtain, soundboard and laptop lit bright. It was Washington on a Tuesday night: There was money to be raised.
There was, too, a tall blond woman, wearing a small cocktail dress, climbing into a bobsled.
“Washington has a lot of fundraisers,” said Ted Offit, the lawyer who helped organize this one. “But there aren’t a lot like this.”
So in the Colonnade banquet room at the Fairmont Hotel on the edge of Georgetown, a typical Washington function supported a decidedly non-Washington entity: the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation. This is an Olympic season — the Sochi Games are just seven weeks off — and the federation’s lone fundraiser of this sort served as both a D.C. oddity and a must for the athletes who will travel to Russia hoping for gold.
“Much like everyone else, I just figured the government or somebody else — or if I made the national team, sponsors would just come clawing at me,” said Elana Meyers, a George Washington graduate who won bronze at the 2010 Olympics. “And that’s not the case at all.”
So that is why members of the bobsled team, male and female, came to the Fairmont on a cold, drizzly night and stood in sneakers amid the heels, smiling the entire time. The bobsled team is full of athletes like in other winter sports, athletes who have to piece together their lives in order to pursue their loves. Meyers has worked in a burrito shop and served as a substitute teacher. Curt Tomasevicz, a member of the four-man sled that took Olympic gold in 2010, wouldn’t have been able to start his career had his hometown of Shelby, Neb. — population 690 — not held a fundraiser for him.
And even those who make the team and win medals — and the United States off to a tremendous start to this season, has high hopes for Sochi — aren’t guaranteed full funding for each season. “We have to try to make up the deficit between what it costs and what we have,” said Offit, a Baltimore native and member of the federation’s board of directors.
To that end, Offit and another board member, Washington advertising and marketing executive Don Schaaf, tapped into their networks and arranged Tuesday’s event, one completely bankrolled by BMW, which designed the sled around which the party centered. (Sample interaction: square-jawed team member Cory Butner: “One guy’s here, and somebody else is back there, and you go.” Two women, jaws agape: “How fast?”) This was not so much about bobsledding as it was about getting close to the Olympics and Olympians.
“I won’t say it’s easy to generate money during the Olympic Games,” said Darrin Steele, the federation’s CEO. “But it’s a lot tougher afterwards. Now, people are jazzed. They want to meet the athletes. The reality is: A lot of our sponsorships end after the Games, and we don’t want to start over.”
This is an operation that, this season alone, will spend around a half-million dollars just to transport its sleds back and forth to Europe. Meyers — who was a pusher when she and Erin Pac won bronze in 2010 but has since moved into the driver’s seat — pointed out that she must pay for the runners on her sled, runners that cost about $5,000 per set. So she is more than willing to smile and show a 50-something couple, cocktails in hand, how the sled works.
“You really have to make sure you’re doing everything you can to work for those dollars,” she said. “It’s work. It’s part of the job. I just think of it as what I have to do to be able to do what I love.”
Tuesday evening drew some 185 guests, in the heart of holiday season, through the lobby of the Fairmont, where the music from a piano played Christmas music. It featured Jimmy Roberts of NBC Sports as the emcee. It featured an auction for, among other things, an “Olympic bobsled experience,” in which the winning bidder would get, among other things, a trip down the 2002 Olympic bobsled track in Park City, Utah. (According to the program, the value of such an experience was “priceless,” which differs from the opportunity to play in the pro-am prior to next year’s BMW Championship golf tournament, which was “$15,000+).
And all told, it raised more than $250,000, Offit said Wednesday.
That Offit, whose law firm serves much of the mid-Atlantic, ended up connecting medal-winning athletes to would-be donors is something of an oddity, too. Six years ago, the U.S. Olympic Committee essentially wiped out the entire leadership structure of the bobsled team. Offit had a friend who had moved to Utah and become involved in the bobsled culture there, and the friend wondered if Offit might want to be part of a new leadership. He didn’t think much of it — until he was scheduling a two-hour interview, and then accepting a board position.
“For me, it’s about supporting these amazing athletes,” he said. “It just happens to be bobsled.”
On Tuesday night, the party at the Fairmont could have been any fundraising D.C. soiree. It just happened to be bobsled.