Poor Sport: When Olympic athletes have to moonlight
FORTUNE — The U.S government is one of only a few countries that do not give money to Olympians. Glenn Merry, the CEO of the U.S. Rowing Association said that every team within the United States is funded differently, with only 30% to 35% of their funding coming from the U.S Olympic Committee, which receives money from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “The U.S Olympic Committee has a pot of money that is divided between the governing bodies,” said Merry. “This year we will get $1,200,000 from them, but at one point it was as low as $750,000.” Another source of funding comes from private donors giving anywhere from $10 to $100,000 adding up to $1 million. Their third component comes from golf outings, a 5K run, and other fundraising events. Every governing body differs, and some might earn more money from corporate sponsors compared to private donors.
The U.S Olympic Committee hasn’t always had the same model for funding each sport. They used to have a base of funding — every sport was guaranteed a certain amount of money. Alan Ashley, the chief of sport performance at The U.S. Olympic Committee says that, over time, the Games have moved toward a more customized approach for the governing bodies of each sport. “Our relationship with each national governing body is very customized. So our relationships with judo, rowing or track and field are all quite different. They’re tailored around trying to do as much as we possibly can to support their strategy in terms of training camps, coaching, getting into the right competitions,” he says. This is determined, he says, by looking at how many medals the sport has won, and if it has a good chance of winning in the future. It also varies depending on the capability of each governing body and how much money they can raise without the help of the USOC. “There are sports that have large memberships, do big events, have a lot of television presence, and then there are other ones that are relatively obscure and it’s very difficult for them to raise funds,” Ashley says. Governing bodies receive anywhere from 5% to 95% of their total funding from the committee.
Private donations and teams’ membership revenues are also a crucial part of funding. When Merry took over as CEO in 2002, U.S. Rowing went from receiving $30,000 from National Rowing Foundation Donors, to over $1 million in 2012. Some sports have a much greater membership base, such as hockey, with over 300,000 members. If one were to join a hockey team at their local ice rink, a portion of that their membership fee would most likely go directly to the hockey governing body.
The creative fundraising among poorly funded athletes extends to their lifestyle. The women on the U.S. Rowing team, who receive only about a $400-a-month stipend from the USOC, live with host families and take one, sometimes two, jobs while training for the games, sometimes heading to a desk after 10-hours of training. The British rowing team, in comparison, is the nation’s highest funded — nearly $44 million went to the team to prepare for this summer’s games, five times the amount of the U.S. team. In addition to living expenses, U.S. Rowing has a tiered system of what events they can financially cover for each athlete. Excluding the Olympics, not all athletes are monetarily covered to attend every event. If one athlete won silver medal in the previous Olympic Games, he or she might get $800 a month in support, compared with someone who might get $400 if they didn’t win a medal. “It’s not so much an incentive to do better. It’s more to recognize their effort and make it a little bit easier for the people on top,” Merry says.
Charlie Cole, a 25-year-old Yale graduate, is currently in the midst of trying to qualify for the U.S. Rowing team. While he was training in Princeton, he started an afterschool tutoring program with a few other rowers to make extra income. “It was a real learning experience for us, but at the end of the day, I need to focus on rowing,” Cole says. “I know I can’t make a career out of it in a true sense, but until I come to that point, rowing is my number one priority.”
In the U.K., funding not only comes from the government, but from the lottery as well. Athletes’ financial support gives them the opportunity to focus on their game without having to take on a second job. For the four-year funding period for the London games, U.K. sport allocated roughly a total $426 million dollars, more than double what the U.S. Olympic Committee has to give all governing bodies of every Olympic sport.
For more on the London Summer Games, click on the links below
The (big) bucks behind the 2012 Olympics
Wall Street gets behind the games
Henry Kissinger: Scholar, statesman, Olympic fan
Will NBC’s investment pay off?
Rich Sport: U.S. Olympic swimmers float on cash
Poor Sport: When Olympic athletes have to moonlight
London locks down for the Olympics
BMW’s ultimate Olympic machine
13 steps to keeping the London Olympics safe
London’s extreme Olympic makeover
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in the June 11, 2012 issue of Fortune.