“I know you guys are swamped. . . . I am just circling back,” wrote Desiree Filippone, a USOPC manager who oversees lobbying efforts, in an email sent to several Senate staffers Saturday and later provided to The Washington Post.
According to USOPC estimates, Filippone wrote, more than $50 million was needed to help America’s top aspiring Olympic athletes deal with income because of to coronavirus-related postponements and cancellations. The other $150 million the USOPC wanted, Filippone explained, would go to more than 50 national governing bodies — commonly referred to as NGBs — the nonprofits that oversee each Olympic sport in the United States.
“Financial relief is needed to sustain American athletes,” Filippone wrote. “Thank you for your consideration.”
The Senate ultimately ignored the request, leaving the USOPC out of the $2.2 trillion package awaiting House approval Thursday. Filippone, when reached by phone this week, declined to comment. In a statement, USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland defended the $200 million request and said none of the money would have gone to support operations or payroll for the USOPC, formerly known as the USOC, whose revenue stream should be mostly stable provided the postponed Summer Games in Tokyo eventually happen in 2021 and aren’t canceled outright.
“The USOPC did not and is not asking for any funding for our organization. The request for funds to be paid directly to athletes and National Governing Bodies was made in light of the unprecedented impact of the covid-19 virus on our domestic sport community,” Hirshland wrote.
In the offices of the senators who received Filippone’s email, the request was never taken seriously, according to two congressional staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. By the USOPC’s own estimates, it was seeking financial help for 2,550 athletes, as well as sport NGBs with about 4,500 full-time employees, a population of roughly 6,000 far outpaced by the other industries vying for stimulus funding. America’s restaurants, alone, employ more than 15.6 million, according to industry estimates.
Critics of the USOPC and the broader bureaucracy that oversee Olympic sports, meanwhile, viewed the request skeptically, noting long-running criticism in the athlete community that top Olympic executives enjoy healthy salaries while many Olympic athletes struggle to make a full-time living from their sports.
“This is not about athletes. This is about the blue-blazer, white-shoe-wearing country club types at the USOC and these NGBs,” said John Manly, lead attorney for more than 200 victims of Larry Nassar, the former Team USA gymnastics physician and convicted serial pedophile. Among Manly’s clients are former Olympic stars Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney, who have both sued the USOPC and USA Gymnastics for their abuse.
“If Congress wants to help athletes, they should deal directly with the athletes, not go through these bozos at the USOC,” Manly said. “It boggles the mind that they would have the audacity to even ask.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar and Eli Bremer, two former Olympic athletes pushing for legislation to force stronger congressional oversight of Olympic sports organizations in light of the Nassar scandal, took issue with the discrepancy between the sums the USOPC sought for athletes and for the NGBs, the bureaucracy that manages those athletes.
In her email to Senate staffers, Filippone wrote the USOPC wanted about $50 million for America’s top 2,550 athletes in Olympic and Paralympic sports, just shy of $20,000 per athlete. The $150 million sought for NGBs, meanwhile, broke down to roughly $33,000 per NGB employee.
“My concern is that the coronavirus is being used. . . . They’re asking for money that we know, once again, is going to go into the pockets of the executives, and not to the actual athletes,” said Hogshead-Makar, a three-time gold medal Olympic swimmer and chief executive of Champion Women, a nonprofit that advocates for girls and women in sports.
“It was jaw-dropping when we heard the number,” said Bremer, an Olympic modern pentathlete and entrepreneur. “I think there’s just so much cash getting thrown around D.C., and Desiree, she knows the game … They shouldn’t be running to the trough, though, unless they have a verified need for it.”
In her email, Filippone did not detail the calculations that informed the $200 million request. USOPC CEO Hirshland, in her statement explaining the figures, wrote: “On short notice we surveyed NGBs and then made additional assumptions about the current and future impact of the pandemic on athlete financial support.”
In phone interviews, officials with NGBs involved with the survey process defended the figures as accurate. While the Olympics are not canceled, just postponed to 2021, these officials said, Olympic sport NGBs depend on non-Olympic events held year-round for income.
“The losses are real, and there aren’t a lot of other places [in NGB budgets] to trim back,” said Max Cobb, chief executive of the U.S. Biathlon Association, who helped oversee the survey effort last week. Cobb acknowledged, however, that the $150 million figure was something of a rough estimate; several NGBs didn’t reply to USOPC requests to fill out a survey disclosing estimated financial losses.
Of the 55 NGBs surveyed, Cobb said, 41 replied, detailing an estimated $121.8 million in lost revenue because of cancellations from March through June.
“We did back-of-the-envelope estimates for what might be losses for the group that we hadn’t heard from, and that took us close to $150 million,” Cobb said. He declined to release per-sport data because the NGBs were not told in advance the information could become public.
Cobb did provide anonymized data — the total amounts reported lost by each NGB, without disclosing which sport reported which figure. More than $100 million in losses were reported by nine NGBs, while the remaining 32 organizations that replied estimated more modest losses.
For U.S. Biathlon, Cobb said, the losses would be about $44,000 for an organization with a roughly $2.6 million annual budget. As the coronavirus became a global concern this month, U.S. Biathlon had to back out of two events in Europe and cancel its national and North American championships, which were scheduled for this week in West Yellowstone, Mont.
USA Swimming, USA Track and Field and USA Gymnastics declined to disclose figures they reported to the USOPC as lost revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic.
USA Wrestling chief executive Rich Bender said his organization reported about $1.5 million in estimated losses, with $500,000 because of the indefinitely postponed Olympic trials.
“It totally will force us to reimagine how we operate and run our business,” Bender said. “Our sport has been brought to a screeching halt.”