The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The USOPC asked Congress for money. Congress should respond by tearing it down.

President Trump speaks with USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland during a February briefing in Los Angeles. (Evan Vucci/AP)

When the novel coronavirus really gets you down, when the pet videos are no longer doing it for you and you need something really, really funny to lift yourself up, just think about U.S. Olympic authorities asking Congress for $200 million in the middle of a lethal pandemic and recession. The outbursts of incredulous laughter from tired legislators must have echoed off the top of the Capitol rotunda and made even the statues shake with merriment.

It’s the ultimate reveal. No one in Congress can have any more illusions about the true nature of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee or whom it really serves: It serves itself and its own bloat. Oh, it may have renamed itself, added “Paralympic” in an attempt at a gloss of fresh virtue, but it’s really the same old cash-grubbing, shell-game, plush, insulated-by-luxury USOC. An organization with $443 million in assets, that pays nine of its executives salaries of more than $400,000 apiece, went crying for a massive chunk of the stimulus relief package at a time when a record 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits and the death toll from the coronavirus is growing exponentially.

Please, Congress, make this laugh-till-you-cry slapstick go away. For the love of America’s children, who will one day play outside again, knock this rotted fun house down.

It’s not that the leaders of the USOPC are bad people. CEO Sarah Hirshland seems perfectly nice and in fact has taken a voluntarily pay cut like many in the corporate world. The problem is that the well-intentioned have failed to change an ingrained culture of fattening off athletes and self-dealing, of legalism and lobbying, that is heavily weighted toward rewarding bureaucrats over competitors. Example: Our gold medal women’s hockey players received just $6,000 over an entire four-year quadrennial. Meanwhile, interim CEO and board member Susanne Lyons was granted $7,500 per month in 2018 just in allowance for commuting. And that was on top of her $500,000 salary. Lyons made more in a single month for expenses than a gold medalist was granted in four years.

You’d like to think the leadership was embarrassed by that, or by its $200 million ask, which The Washington Post’s Will Hobson reported Thursday. But apparently this is a body as incapable of shame as it is lacking in perspective.

The USOPC contends the stimulus money would have gone to “support” athletes. It’s an utterly disingenuous statement. “Athlete support” is one of the most contentious phrases in the U.S. Olympic movement, bitterly resented by the kids who do the actual competing. For years, the USOPC has played opaque games with numbers and what constitutes “athlete support,” until no one can say exactly what it is, nor can you sort it out on the USOPC’s tax documents. The one thing it rarely means is cash directly into the pocket of a swimmer or runner or skier. That kind of support is fractional, even in the richest of circumstances.

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Hirshland says athletes would have been supported through the $150 million she wanted to give to the national governing bodies (NGBs) of their individual sports. But the NGBs only mimic the administrative distention and crony back-scratching: They carry around 4,500 employees — for 2,550 athletes. The chief of USA Track & Field makes $1.14 million per year. The head of USA Swimming, $699,000. The head of U.S. Ski & Snowboard, $800,000.

You know who the most important supporters of our Olympic athletes in most sports are? It’s not the USOPC or the NGBs. It’s the NCAA and local clubs. In scores of nonrevenue Olympic endeavors during dormant cycles, our universities board our athletes, feed our athletes, train our athletes, educate our athletes.

Stanford has produced 280 Olympic medals; UCLA, 224. Michigan has produced 134; Texas, 130; Ohio State, an even 100. They and their conferences will be facing challenging economic circumstances from the cancellation of the NCAA’s biggest revenue-producing events. If Congress ever wants to give sports bodies a bailout, it should consider universities first.

Understand this about our current USOPC structure: It is an empty can, a receptacle for catching all the cash that falls to it from huge fees for Olympic broadcast rights and licensing, none of which it truly generates, and none of which would exist without the athletes. As a nonprofit, its main role should be to distribute that money directly to athletes. But somehow the money always gets clogged in a bewildering array of pipes that, when you can disentangle them, almost invariably leads to someone wearing a blazer instead of sneakers. According to the USOPC’s latest tax documents, $13.7 million went to legal fees. Compensation for just its top officers came to $7.6 million.

So how much of that bailout money, do you think, would have really gone to athletes? And how much would have gone to paying salary and travel expenses for the chair of committee of the subcommittee of the at-large committee?

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This disgraceful attempt at filching comes on the heels of two other actions by the USOPC that demonstrate once and for all that athletes are not the priority of the organization and never will be as long as it’s constituted this way.

At the end of January, the USOPC made a vile attempt to condition any compensatory damages for athletes who were sexually abused, including the victims of serial molester Larry Nassar, on their silence. As part of a lowball offer to Nassar’s gymnastics victims, it not only demanded gag orders but also to be released from liability for a range of abuses, even for “all future claims.” What’s more, as the judge in the case has angrily observed, the USOPC has not offered “a nickel” to the victims out of its own purse for the Nassar tragedy, instead forcing insurers and the bankrupt USA Gymnastics to find money for claims.

Now, there is only one reason the USOPC would demand silence and releases from victims, and that’s to prevent further discovery. It’s a Harvey Weinstein tactic. This from an organization that enjoys tax-exempt status and that the public has donated large amounts of money to, on the assumption it would go toward the care of young athletes.

Then, last week, there was its hedging, mealy-mouthed hesitancy to call for the postponement of the Tokyo Games. For the USOPC to defend its attempted grab at stimulus money by saying, “It’s for the athletes,” is a joke given that, just days earlier, when it had a chance to show it actually cared about their physical well-being, it couldn’t make the tough call. Instead it waited for other countries to take strong positions. Canada had the courage to declare it had no intention of sending its youth running and swimming into a viral outbreak. But not the USOPC.

No one should ever send another dime to this giant slush fund again — not taxpayers, not Congress and not misled donors. Not until it has been totally reconstituted, into a pipeline directly to athletes.