The U.S. Olympic Committee, that bloated bureaucracy, must be restructured if America is to fulfill its athletic potential
September 11, 1988

Perhaps, like many of us here at the office, you were one of the nearly nine million Americans who recently received a note from Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). The note began: "Somewhere in a lonely field in Kansas a 15-year-old boy jumps as far as he can. Is he the next Carl Lewis?"

It was a charming image, and if it touched you, you may have been moved to write a check to the USOC. Later you may have wondered where that money went.

America's athletes certainly do. Of the USOC's operating budget of $149.9 million for the current (1985-88) quadrennium, only $2.2 million has gone directly to prospective Olympians, via a program called Operation Gold. That breaks down to 1.5 cents of every dollar. Granted, about 20 cents of each dollar was divvied up among the 34 national governing bodies (NGBs)—there is a governing body overseeing each Olympic sport—which in turn passed on varying amounts to their athletes. Still, the USOC money given directly to athletes, primarily for living expenses while in training, was less than the amount spent on travel, meals and lodging by the 30-odd committees that report to the USOC's executive board. (For a complete breakdown of where a USOC dollar goes, see the chart on this page.)

If you love bureaucracies, you will adore the USOC, an umbrella organization whose concerns extend far beyond the American Olympic movement. Too far, as we shall see. Disorganized, poorly focused and undercapitalized, the USOC is badly in need of restructuring, leadership and, yes, money.

"We're an organization of organizations," USOC officials frequently point out. The USOC's member organizations include the 38 NGBs of the sports that are included in the Olympic and/or the Pan American games. That number will increase to 40 in 1989 when badminton and bowling are added to the lists. In addition to the NGBs, a variety of other organizations involved—some very tangentially—in sports are USOC members. The Catholic Youth Organization is one, and so is the National Exploring Division of the Boy Scouts. The NCAA, the NAIA and the YMCA are members, as are the Olympic organizations of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, plus seven national sports organizations for the disabled (chart at right).

"Ballroom dancing was just barely voted down as a USOC member," says Mike Jacki, executive director of the U.S. Gymnastics Federation. "Our meetings are like a circus. Someone stands up and says, I think we should be in the hot dog business." Two or three guys nod their heads. And you know what? Pretty soon we're in the hot dog business."

Even Helmick, who has served as USOC president since 1985, recognizes that his organization has big shortcomings. In a dreadful case of timing—during the Calgary Winter Olympics—he announced the appointment of the so-called Steinbrenner Commission, a task force headed by New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to review the USOC structure and recommend changes. "Personally, I think we should narrow our focus," says Helmick. "We can't be all things to all people, and since 1978 there has been a tendency to try to be that."

To understand why, a little background is necessary. The USOC, under various names, has been around since 1896, when the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens. In the early years the organization's energies were directed solely toward selecting which athletes and teams would compete for the U.S. in the Games, arranging travel for athletes and coaches, and representing the U.S. in the international Olympic movement. The training of U.S. athletes was left up to organizations such as the AAU and the NCAA.

Things started to change after the U.S. fared poorly against the Soviets and East Germans in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. President Gerald Ford asked for an official look at the U.S. Olympic effort. He formed the President's Commission on Olympic Sports, which made two primary recommendations: that an efficient central organization coordinate the development of amateur sport in the U.S. and that it be given a one-time infusion of $215 million in (presumably federal) funds, to be supplemented by an annual budget of $83 million, also from government coffers.

Congress duly passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which designated the USOC as honcho of amateur sports development in the U.S. But Congress never approved that $215 million grant or the $83 million annual allocation. As a result, the USOC receives virtually no government support.

Which is not to say that the USOC has proceeded nobly, fighting long odds on a spartan budget. In fact, it has done little to trim its burdensome bureaucracy. For example, its House of Delegates (see chart, page 39), some 400 members strong, meets once a year at the USOC's expense to listen to reports that could just as well be read at home.

Policy is set by the USOC's executive board, which decides everything from which city will make the U.S. bid to host a given Olympics to how USOC funds are apportioned. The board has approximately 90 members. A body that size has difficulty deciding where to go to lunch, much less how to spend $149.9 million for the betterment of amateur sports. Amoebalike, it must divide itself into some 30 different committees to accomplish anything—a credentials committee, an international relations committee, a public relations and public information committee—all of which must meet separately to do business.

The expenses for all these committees, plus the House of Delegates meetings, will come to some $3 million in this quadrennium, according to USOC comptroller John Samuelson. "It is very expensive to put up 340 people in Washington, D.C.," he says, referring to the last House of Delegates meeting.

"We're top-heavy with our money," says Jim Fox, executive director of USA Amateur Boxing. "Only about 20 percent of the USOC's budget goes to the national governing bodies, which in terms of direct athlete support is where the rubber meets the road."

In this quadrennium, $30 million of the USOC's budget found its way to "where the rubber meets the road." That's about $200,000 per year per sport, a fraction of a typical NGB's expenditures on behalf of athletes. Frustrated by this lack of support, the NGBs have beefed up their own efforts to raise funds, often competing with the USOC for sponsors. "They have professional people there at Olympic House," says USA Hockey's executive director, Bob Johnson. "They're better fund-raisers than we are. I wish there was more teamwork."

Some big sports, frustrated by mountains of paperwork (this year there were 15 different types of USOC grants that an NGB could apply for), would like complete autonomy. But minor sports that can't attract backers must depend heavily on the USOC for their financing. "The only way sponsors are going to be drawn to a lesser-known sport will be if I sell it to them," says John Krimsky, the chief USOC fund-raiser.

The USOC has been far more adept at raising money than at spending it wisely, however. Direct mail campaigns—"somewhere in a lonely field in Kansas..."—now account for 13.4% of USOC revenues. Corporate contributions make up 41.2%. A tax checkoff program, whereby citizens can contribute to the USOC out of their state tax refunds, is now offered in nine states. The checkoff accounts for just 2% of USOC revenue, a figure which could grow dramatically if more state legislatures adopt the program.

The sale of TV rights to the Calgary and Seoul games, various Olympic trials, and the Olympic festivals accounted for $19.6 million, or 13% of the USOC budget for this quadrennium. And a new arrangement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), that will give the USOC 10% of the IOC's American television revenues, will provide an additional $40-$45 million in the next quadrennium (1989-92). The total USOC budget for those four years should be more than $200 million.

And that doesn't take into account the monies that the Olympic Coin Act is expected to bring in. Passed by Congress last October, the Coin Act enables the USOC to sell silver and gold commemorative coins minted by the U.S. Treasury. The USOC will reap $7 for each silver and $35 for each gold coin sold and must, by law, spend that income on training athletes or subsidizing their living expenses or providing facilities for them. Projected coin revenues: $50 million by 1992, $25 million of which will go to direct athlete support. But, says Helmick, "even $25 million for direct athlete assistance is woefully inadequate. It maybe amounts to $7,000-$10,000 per elite athlete per year. That should be more like $20,000-$25,000."

The USOC estimates it will have some $250 million to distribute to member organizations and athletes in the next quadrennium. Yet the USOC still operates like a little boy trying to plug leaks in a dike with his fingers: By the time it gets around to addressing one problem, two others have sprung up. Rarely has the USOC been able to exercise clear, long-range judgment.

The locations of America's three Olympic training centers are examples of USOC shortsightedness. In 1978, the USOC moved its offices from New York City to Colorado Springs. Why? Because Colorado Springs offered the organization 36 acres of land and a few old office buildings—a good investment for a city of 280,000, considering the millions of dollars that the USOC has pumped into the local economy since then.

In the ensuing decade the USOC has become more and more entrenched in Colorado Springs. Nineteen NGBs have moved their national headquarters there, with office space provided free of charge by the USOC to all but three. The USOC's sports medicine center is based there. And the largest Olympic training center is in Colorado Springs, despite the fact that the city is 6,000 feel above sea level, an altitude to which visiting athletes must become acclimated. It's also about as far as possible from the population centers of the East and West coasts.

The Olympic training center in Colorado Springs has no swimming pool, no grass playing fields and no winter Olympic facilities, and its long jump runways and pits are buckled and weed-covered from disuse. The center has only one gymnasium, which is often booked months in advance. "Every day of the year we are out in the streets of Colorado Springs, begging to use sports facilities," says Larry McCollum, the director of all three of the USOC's training centers. "I would have thought after 11 years in this complex we'd have come up with another damn gym or a pool."

Marquette, Mich., is the site of a second Olympic training center—a little-used backwater facility shared by Olympic hopefuls and students at Northern Michigan University, which was looking for some way to use its empty dormitories after student enrollment declined. USOC's share of the costs at the Marquette center is only about $50,000 a year, but why not commit that money to a worthy long-range project? Instead, that remote facility is going to be expanded by 1990.

The Winter Olympic training center in Lake Placid is nothing short of pathetic, although the Olympic Regional Development Authority, a New York State organization that manages the Placid property, is finally putting $12 million into building a new dormitory, gymnasium and dining facility there. In return the USOC has committed $1.4 million to rebuilding the luge and bobsled runs, the only such venues in the country, which have deteriorated. The speed skating oval at Lake Placid remains largely unused: most of the elite American speed skaters are from the Midwest and train in Milwaukee or at the indoor oval in Calgary.

The USOC has plans to open a new Olympic training center in San Diego in 1991. The city is providing most of the money for the center, which will provide a warm-weather, sea-level facility for track and field athletes, many of whom already live in Southern California. The San Diego training center might also accommodate canoeists, kayakers and rowers.

Things aren't so bright on the winter sports horizon, however. In a classic example of the USOC's lack of vision, the executive board nominated Anchorage, Alaska, as the host city for the 1994 Winter Games, selecting it over Salt Lake City, Reno/Lake Tahoe and Lake Placid. Why? Politics, say some observers; Alaska's senior senator, Ted Stevens, was the driving force behind passage of the 1978 Amateur Sports Act. If the IOC awards the '94 Games to Anchorage, the finest American winter sports facilities will be built 1,400 miles from the continental U.S.

How should the USOC be structured in the future? In what direction should it head? Some recommendations:

•Take the trends of the past 10 years to their logical extremes and make the USOC simply a clearing house for funds. It has increasingly functioned as a central bank, anyway. Indeed, during the next four years the USOC will scrap its multilayered grant system and begin awarding each NGB a lump sum of money for the quadrennium based on a complicated formula that weighs everything from development needs of the sport to medals won.

"Now they'll be given a chunk of money, and we'll tell them, 'You show us the best way to make progress,' " says the USOC's assistant director of international games preparation, Jim Page. "We'll also act as a central data base. If one sport wants to know what another, more successful sport has been doing in terms of junior development, we'll have that information for them."

•Make the Olympic training centers more sports specific. Clearly, multipurpose facilities that try to be all things to all athletes, like the one in Colorado Springs, represent an inefficient use of funds. That does not mean there should be one training center for each sport. Many sports can, and should, coexist—bobsled, luge, skiing and ski jumping; swimming, water polo, synchronized swimming and diving, to cite two examples. Each training center should be financed by the USOC based on the number of athletes who use it and the number of sports it accommodates.

•The USOC's sports medicine program and the U.S. Pan Am and World University games efforts all should become independent national governing bodies. Each, then, would appeal to the USOC central bank for funds.

•Disband the House of Delegates. This will be a tough one, because the delegates will have to vote themselves out of existence. But they should do so. The 90-member Executive Board can become a new House of Delegates.

•Finally, give the USOC the financial support it requires. The USOC, even in its more streamlined form, will need money to finance construction of additional training centers, the training of coaches and the subsidizing of both world class athletes and junior development programs.

A common misconception is that the USOC became rich with its 40% share of the profits from the Los Angeles Olympics. Not so. That money—some $110 million—was used as the bedrock for an autonomous institution, the U.S. Olympic Foundation, which is intended to act as a buffer against bankruptcy for amateur sports in the U.S. The foundation contributes money to the NGBs each year; a total of $7.9 million was given in 1987. But investment strategy dictates that the contributions not exceed half the total return on the foundation's endowment (the other half is reinvested). The principal is untouchable, and so it doesn't really exist for the athletes.

How then to bolster USOC finances? Congress should finish the job it started 10 years ago. If the federal government had an income tax checkoff for Olympic contributions and one in three taxpayers elected to donate a dollar out of their refund money, it would bring in an additional $33 million a year. The checkoff box legislation should be passed only when, by trimming its bureaucracy, the USOC demonstrates its willingness to reform. There is no sense giving the current USOC more money to squander.

That $33 million may not be enough to turn that high-flying 15-year-old boy in Kansas into the next Carl Lewis, but it will go a long way toward providing the youth of America the support it deserves.

CHARTJOHN GRIMWADE PHOTOKEVIN HORAN ILLUSTRATION PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONLake Placid's luge run is run-down, and the track at Colorado Springs is underutilized. PHOTOCARL YARBROUGH[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN NEINHUISBy 1990, the Marquette, Mich., training center will be expanded. CHARTJOHN GRIMWADE ILLUSTRATION


The USOC, directed by Congress to improve America's showing in the Games, spends but a tiny sliver of its money on direct assistance to athletes.

USOC 1985-88 EXPENDITURES (in millions)
TOTAL: $149.9

Operation Gold


Training centers $19.9

Development grants


Capital improvements

Sports for the disabled Public information Miscellaneous

Sports medicine

Games preparations

National and international events



Helmick sits at the top of an unwieldy structure that embraces too many groups having little or nothing to do with identifying and developing Olympic athletes.


•Vice-presidents (3)


•USOC president serves as chairman
•Meets at least six times a year


•Includes all USOC officers
•Has general charge of USOC activities and business affairs
•Meets at least three times a year


•Serves as the coordinating body for international amateur athletics involving U.S. athletes
•Organizes and finances U.S. teams for Olympic and Pan American Games


•Executive director and paid staff
•Implements the decisions of the executive board


•Has the authority to elect officers, and to amend or repeal the USOC constitution and bylaws
•Meets once a year



•Field Hockey (Men's)
•Field Hockey (Women's)
•Figure Skating
•Ice Hockey
•Modern Pentathlon
•Roller Skating
•Speed Skating
•Synchronized Swimming
•Table Tennis
•Tae Kwon Do
•Track and Field
•Water Polo


•Amateur Athletic Union
•American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance
•Boys Clubs of America
•Boy Scouts of America (Explorers)
•Catholic Youth Organization
•Jewish Welfare Board
•National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics
•National Collegiate Athletic Association
•National Federation of State High School Associations
•National Junior College Athletic Association
•Police Athletic League
•U.S. Armed Forces

•All 50 states and the District of Columbia represented


•Sports Acrobatics


•American Athletic Association of the Deaf
•National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Association
•National Wheelchair Athletic Association
•Special Olympics
•U.S. Amputee Athletic Association
•U.S. Association for Blind Athletes
•U.S. Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association


The national governing body for swimming is fairly typical of the larger NGBs: It doesn't do much better than the USOC in getting money directly to athletes.

1988 EXPENDITURES (in millions)
TOTAL: $6.11





Sports medicine

Direct grants