May 31, 2005 Weighs In On the Olympic Programme

This is an excellent story by E. M. Swift about the upcoming IOC vote on the sports on the Olympic programme.

Of course, not to blow my own horn or anything, but I've covered almost all of this before. See my previous posts here, here, here, here, here, and here.

May 30, 2005

Adam Nelson Has a Sponsor

Things worked out well for Adam Nelson, the U.S. shot putter who was auctioning himself off on eBay (my post). The final bid was $12000 for one month of Nelson's services.

The winner, as reported on, was MedivoxRx Technologies, which is a subsidiary of Wizzard Software. I'm not sure that it will will be as good a deal for them as it was for Nelson. Their main product, Rex – The Talking Pill Bottle, is a container that verbally identifies pill bottle contents and dispenses information that would otherwise appear on the prescription label. The target market, according to the news release announcing the deal, includes "the elderly, the visually impaired and cognitively impaired, or anyone who can't read or understand their medication label instructions."

I'm not sure that the target market overlaps much with the viewing audience for the shot put at the USA Track and Field Championships, but what do I know?

And of course the association with the pharmaceutical industry, no matter how benign, is bound to inspire some heckling. I'm expecting photos of Adam Nelson standing on top of the podium, with a dancing pill bottle on his shirt.

Rulon Gardner Wants To Help

After thinking about it for a few days, Rulon Gardner (previous post) wants to set the record straight.

I'm not angry at the USOC. The USOC gave me the opportunity back in 1993 to train, they provided me trips overseas. The last thing I want to do is to show I'm a disgruntled employee or anything like that. I have no animosity toward anyone at the USOC.

Gardner is taking a very proactive attitude to the problem, hoping to work with the USOC to find a way to help Olympic athletes after retirement:

I want them to be taken care of. I'd like to help them in the future. That's my goal — it's to help the Olympic movement and take care of athletes.

May 28, 2005

In the Red Corner, Ladies and Gentlemen …

I found an odd little story at this afternoon. Here's the president of the International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA), Anwar Chowdry:

The IOC and AIBA in principle have agreed to induct women boxing in the next Olympiad, though there are still many details to be worked out, which would be done in October or December this year, when we will summon the AIBA executive committee meeting and finalise all these crucial issues.

Sounds like boxing is worried about those gender equity criteria, and perhaps its inclusion in the Olympic programme. But they're finding out that Jacques Rogge is serious about the limits on the number of participants:

… the major hitch in introducing the women's categories was that the IOC chief wanted to compromise with the number of weight categories in men's event so that berths for the women's boxers could be accommodated. The IOC chief has proposed that they reduce few weight categories in men's while he would increase some quota of boxing to include female boxing as they (IOC) had fixed the limit of 10500 athletes in the next Olympic Games.

That's how it's going for everybody; you can make yourself more TV-friendly, and you can improve your gender equity, but you can't add any athletes. You decide what you're going to cut out.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out, since the "agreement in principle" doesn't seem to be accompanied by an agreement in practice; the article goes on to explain that the AIBA isn't too keen on cutting out any men's weight classes. It wouldn't surprise me if this whole effort turned out to be mostly for show on the AIBA's part. Their agreement in principle might swing them a few more votes in July; and once they are safely on the Olympic programme, they'll claim that they couldn't make a deal with the IOC, so women's boxing will have to wait.

May 26, 2005

Rulon Gardner Wants Another Helping

Rulon Garder

Rulon Gardner is famous for his larger-than-life personality and three memorable events:

  • His gold-medal win over Alexander Karelin in 2000 was one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time
  • He had a toe amputated in 2002 after spending a February night stranded in the Wyoming mountains
  • At the end of his bronze-medal match in 2004, Garder sat down on the mat, removed his shoes, and left them there

Peter Richmond did a piece in GQ about Gardner and his night in the wilderness, titled "Rulon Gardner Wants a Third Helping." It's also in Best American Sports Writing 2003.

Olympic heavyweight wrestling champion Rulon Gardner is angry.

Gardner retired in very public fashion by leaving his shoes on the mat an the end of his bronze medal match in 2004. He's angry because he won't be receiving his training allowance or his health insurance from the USOC. As a matter of policy, retired athletes are not eligible for these benefits, which are intended to support Olympic hopefuls.

This little story has a lot of interesting facets. When you look beneath the surface, there's a whole bunch of wrong going on here.

First of all, Gardner is wrong to feel entitled to his handout from the USOC:

Ten years I gave to the sport. I won a bronze medal, walked away and then, in March, I lost my insurance and they pulled my $2,000 in annual grant money. My contract wasn't up until July. I had viewed that money like severance pay, something to help me move on. But for me, it was like a slap in the face.

Well, that money isn't severance pay, Rulon. It's a training allowance for Olympic hopefuls. You aren't one any more. I know, it seems like a victimless crime — so what if a former Olympian steals a couple of thousand dollars as a "pension," and some health insurance? But the fact is, that's money that could be — should be — helping somebody else. Gardner's rationalization reminds me of Employment Insurance cheats who stay on the dole even while they're working, because they feel they "deserve" it.

That's a little harsh, and I should apologize. Because Rulon Garder is not going to get his dole, and that's fundamentally a result of doing the right thing. And as is too often the case, he's being punished for it. What would have happened if he had not come clean about his retirement last summer? Let's go back to our story:

At least one of Gardner's Olympic teammates, Cael Sanderson, has continued receiving his benefits. Although Sanderson, now an assistant coach at Iowa State, hasn't wrestled since Athens, he also hasn't said whether he will retire or try to make the team again for the 2008 Games in Beijing.

Now, I don't know if Cael Sanderson is retired or not, and maybe he fully intends to continue his competitive career. But I think I can read between the lines here. It sure sounds like everybody knows that Sanderson is finished with wrestling, but because he hasn't said so, officials can look the other way while he continues to receive his benefits. When the term of his contract is over in July, he'll quietly slip into "officlal" retirement. If Gardner had been as deceitful, he would be enjoying his health insurance right now. Here's USA Wrestling director Mitch Hull saying the same thing, although not in so many words:

I have to answer to my board. And they'll ask me, 'Well, did he retire? What does the policy say?' The policy says he's not eligible for the money. Hey, those were pretty expensive shoes he left on the mat. They cost him $2,000, unfortunately.

In other words, if Hull could plausibly deny that Gardner had retired — if he just hadn't left those shoes on that mat — then it wouldn't have ended this way.

So the leaders of USA Wrestling are doing a wrong here, too. Athletes who hide their intention to retire are stealing support from other athletes, and officials who knowingly allow it to happen are accomplices to the crime. As it stands, USA Wrestling is sending a clear message to their athletes, and the message is: If you're planning to retire, please don't tell us about it. But that's not fair to the rest of the national team, since a "secretly retired" athlete is taking one of a finite number of spots on that team, and all of the resources that go along with it.

The USOC, as a funding agency, doesn't really have the ability or the knowledge to monitor all of the athletes in every sport, and they rely on the national governing bodies (NGBs) to enforce their policies. But that's not to say that the USOC is blameless here. A policy that encourages athletes to lie about their future plans is a bad policy. And a bad policy that you don't intend to follow is even worse.

There's a lot that's bad in this little story, where there could be good. It isn't that hard to see the solution. Instead of punishing athletes who do are honest, and rewarding those who lie, let's switch it up. The USOC could offer extended funding, or some other support, to retired athletes, to help encourage them to tell the truth about their future plans. And for those cases where encouragement won't be enough, the USOC needs to make sure that the NGBs have enforcement guidelines in place. One way to accomplish this is to put offseason checkpoints (e.g. fitness requirements, medical checkups, training program monitoring) in place. The message should be: If you're planning to retire, tell us about it, so we can help; and if you don't tell us, we're going to find out anyway.

Rulon Gardner as a spokesman for the Olympic movement would be good for the USOC, and for USA Wrestling. Some transitional support would be good for Rulon Gardner. Eliminating the "secretly retired" athlete would be good for younger athletes on the way up. The way things stand right now, we have none of these things.

May 24, 2005

Adam Nelson Wants a Sponsor

Adam Nelson, two-time Olympic silver medallist in the shotput, wants a new sponsor. For the right price, it could be you.

As noted at SLAM! Sports on Saturday, Nelson is auctioning off one month of his time as a spokesman for the highest bidder. It goes without saying that he is using eBay to run the auction (here it is), which is an interesting idea and may prove financially fruitful.

The bidding is (as of this writing) up to $5800, but doesn't close until Wednesday. Nelson is getting a fair bit of press, so the price may keep rising. It's unlikely that he will get this much interest every month, once the novelty wears off, but that doesn't mean that it isn't a good strategy. The major drawback, of course, is that he won't have much control over who he ends up "representing." He might just end up as a spokesman for Golden Palace, for example.

A common frustration for amateur athletes, and amateur sports federations too, is that it's very hard to squeeze cash out of corporate sponsors. While it is fairly easy to arrange for an "in-kind" donation — free clothes, free shoes, free sunglasses — actual money is reserved for the very upper echelons of amateur sport.

Here's a link to a nice article about corporate sponsorship for sports federations from

May 20, 2005

A Unified Ministry for Sport?

This sounds like good news for Canadian athletes.

Paul DeVillers was appointed Parliamentary secretary to the Prime Minister yesterday. M. DeVillers' assignment is to recommend ways to coordinate all of the different existing federal programs for sport, recreation, and fitness and health.

The current situation is pretty screwed up, for sure. Sport Canada, which administers the federal programs for amateur sport, is a department of Canadian Heritage. That means that the core federal funding for the various national sport federations (NSFs), and the Athlete Assistance Program, is lumped in with Arts and Culture, Citizenship and Identity, and Multiculturalism. (Sport and Multiculturalism each have their own Minister of State under the Minister for Canadian Heritage.)

Although sport clearly does have important cultural aspects, Canadian sport advocates have been trying for years to draw the connection between sport and public health. Frankly, in the current arrangement the Sport Canada budget looks to many like a luxury; easy to cut when times are tough. Sport officials would like to bring the government's active living and physical education programs under the same umbrella as the NSFs and all funding for high-performance athletes.

Integrating these programs together would lead to a unified blueprint for physical activity "from cradle to grave," as they say. If it can make Canadians healthier and more athletic, then it's a winning arrangement for everybody.

As an aside, if you live in Canada you have no doubt heard already, but the Liberal budget — which included increased funding for amateur sport — passed a parliamentary vote on Thursday. That's more good news for the NSFs, especially for summer sports, who now have some level of certainty about their 2005-06 funding.

Badminton Wants More Countries

Well, they don't sound very alarmed. I guess they haven't read my prediction. But the International Badminton Federation is planning some changes, designed to increase the number of participating nations in the Olympics.

New IBF president Datuk Punch Gunalan has noticed that the international participation in badminton is dismal:

Last year's Athens Olympic had a 32-country representation. We hope to have about 50 countries involved in the next Games in Beijing

As step one, they should hope that they are included in the programme!

Badminton also won't be helped by the recent resignation of one of the Korean IOC members, vice president Kim Un-yong.

May 19, 2005

Now We'll Own Two Podiums …

… or is that podia? About a week ago the COC announced the leader of their new summer sport excellence program. The program, modelled after the winter sport "Own the Podum — 2010" initiative, is intended to help Canada's athletes achieve more podium successes at upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games. Actually, I shouldn't have called it the COC's program, because it's really organized as a collaborative effort between the NSFs and the "funding partners."

The chosen leader is Dr. Roger Jackson, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing (1964). Dr. Jackson is as well-connected as anybody in the sport community, having been a former director of Sport Canada, three-time president of the COC, and current chairman of the CCES. Pretty impressive credentials, to be sure. This is a man who has spent a lifetime at the highest levels of Canada's sport administration system.

I don't know Dr. Jackson at all, but I am a bit surprised that the steering committee has chosen somebody with such a long history as an insider. Also, dare I mention that Dr. Jackson is 63 years old? For a group that is talking about making radical changes to the way sport is funded in Canada, it's a bit of an odd choice, isn't it? But, as I said, I don't know him. Maybe he is just the kind of mover and shaker that the summer sports need. The press release notes that he has "consulted extensively" on high performance sport in the UK, and the British have certainly experienced a significant performance improvement over the past 8 years. Great Britain won 15 medals (1 gold) in 1996, and improved to 30 medals (9 gold) in 2004. Of course, the improvement also coincided with a whopping increase in funding.

I guess the first order of business is to choose a catchy name to describe the program, and to set some performance goals that generate public interest. Those are two things that the winter group has done well, even if I think that the goals are rather unrealistic.

The Ultimate Olympian

Here's another little gem I came across while surfing. The Ultimate Olympian is attempting to "have a go" at every summer Olympic sport between the closing of the 2004 games and the opening of the 2008 games. His most recent posts chronicle his attempts at a sport near to my own heart.

May 18, 2005

Ethics Blog and Doping News

I found an interesting new blog this week. Bioethics and Sport is a discussion about sport and performance enhancement, and it explores a lot of the grey areas in our current and future attempts to eliminate cheating. I've put a link in the sidebar, too.

Speaking of cheating, and grey areas: about a month ago I noted a well-written article about nutritional supplements and doping. Here's another from the Salt Lake Tribune, with an emphasis on supplement use in NCAA sports. On a related note, US swimmer Kicker Vencill won his lawsuit against Ultimate Nutrition. Vencill sued the vitamin manufacturer for selling him a multivitamin contaminated with steroid precursors, which caused him to fail a drug test. The positive test resulted in a two-year suspension from swimming. The jury awarded Vencill more than $500,000 US in damages.

As Greg over at Sports Law Blog notes, this result could have a positive side effect since it might give the supplement manufacturers some incentive to clean up their act. It will not likely have any impact on doping suspensions; in general, the anti-doping authorities don't care how banned substances are ingested, and athletes are hald accountable for everything that they put into their bodies. That still holds even if you didn't know what you were being exposed to.

Speaking of being held accountable, British sprinter and gold medallist Mark Lewis-Francis tested positive for cannabis last week. He quickly invoked the "Ross Rebagliati" defense, claiming that he must have inhaled some second-hand smoke. Like Rebagliati, Lewis-Francis escaped suspension, but not because of the ridiculous story. UK Athletics noted that cannabis is not a performance-enhancing drug for a sprinter, and was satisfied with a public warning to the athlete.

The Wade Exum case in the U.S., which I have not written about before, took a new turn last month as attorneys representing Dr. Exum subpoenaed additional doping records. Dr. Exum served as the USOC's director of drug control administration until 2000, and has since filed a lawsuit against his former employers. Among his numerous allegations, Exum asserts that the USOC systematically suppressed positive tests from its top athletes.

And of course we couldn't have a doping news update without Dick Pound getting himself in the news again. Pound, the president of WADA, took a couple of shots at FIFA, saying that they had better comply with WADA anti-doping policies, or else. FIFA president Sepp Blatter — not known for hiding from the media, either — responded the way you would expect Sepp Blatter to respond.

In a less confrontational moment, Pound announced that WADA would do more out-of-competition drug tests in 2005 than they did in 2004.

You might notice, if you read the story, that the new, increased number of tests (3000+) is still a lot less than the 2003 total. WADA has generally taken a very strict law-and-order approach to anti-doping, so the decision to cut back so drastically on the number of tests is a little bit puzzling. By putting more money into research and less into testing, WADA might be acknowledging that the science of testing is lagging too far behind the science of cheating. It would be interesting to know the "efficiency" rates over the time that WADA has been performing out-of-competition tests.

May 17, 2005

Lagat Nationality Mixup

Two-time Olympic athletics medallist Bernard Lagat is now a U.S. citizen. On April 13, he announced that he had left Kenya and become a citizen of the country he now calls home. The Kenyan Sports Minister, annoyed by a series of recent defections, publicly called for all former Kenyans to be banned from training in the country. Enforcing that directive would probably prove difficult, but Kenya does have some ability to keep Lagat out of competition. Athletes who change nationality are required to wait three years before they can compete for their new country. If the Kenyan athletics federation agrees, however, the waiting period could be reduced to one year. Lagat acknowledged that he would have to miss the 2005 World Championships, at least. It was probably a tough decision, and surely not one to be taken on the spur of the moment.

But exactly when did he become a U.S. citizen? Lagat ran the 1500 for Kenya at the 2004 Olympics. To do so, he must have been a Kenyan citizen. But U.S. media sources are reporting that although his passport was issued on March 29, 2005, his citizenship was granted on May 7, 2004. Kenyan law does not allow citizens over the age of 21 to hold dual nationality; therefore, if the reports are correct, Lagat was not eligible to run for Kenya in Athens. Furthermore, due to the waiting period restrictions described above, he wasn't eligible to run for the U.S. either. So Lagat might be stripped of his silver medal from Athens. Kenya would replace Lagat's silver with a bronze for fourth-place finisher Timothy Kiptanui.

I haven't seen anything new about this story in the last few weeks. The decision is in the hands of the IOC, and it may not be resolved any time soon.

May 11, 2005

28 Sports: In or Out?

During the last week several analysts have come out with new rankings comparing the 2012 bid cities. If you're interested, everybody agrees that Paris is winning, with London close behind, and New York trailing. Ho hum, pretty much what everybody has been saying for months.

Here at Now THAT's Amateur, we know what's really important. If you follow this blog you will already be aware of the impending vote on the composition of the summer Olympic programme. Many of the international federations (IFs) for the current Olympic sports are concerned about the voting process, but so far there has been no sign that their displeasure is going to cause the IOC to change their plan. Today I want to present my analysis of which sports have the most to fear in the upcoming vote.

The IOC went to a lot of trouble to set out specific criteria to be used in evaluating Olympic sports, and the Programme Commission then spent a lot of time collecting data and evaluating each of the IFs against these criteria. I am not even going to attempt to repeat this evaluation, because (a) the IOC has already done it, and (b) in my opinion it won't influence the vote anyway. When the time comes to vote by secret ballot, I think that the outcome will be determined by politics, not technical merit. Therefore, this is not an analysis of which sports should be voted out of the Olympics, but an attempt to guess which sports will be voted out.

As usual, I'll spell out my (very heroic) assumptions before we start. I am not going to do anything very sophisticated here, since you could probably spend several months studying the complex interactions between the delegates and the IFs. My goal is to get a quick idea of which sports are safe and which sports might be in trouble, and see if there are any surprises in the results. I have three primary assumptions:

  • Each IOC voter is independent of all others. This is certainly not true, but the vote will be by secret ballot, which should serve to make the voters more independent than they otherwise would be.
  • Each IOC voter will vote according to his or her national interest. I will use a couple of different (simple) ways to measure national interest.
  • All IOC voters have an interest in adding at least one new sport to the summer Olympic programme. I am not sure if this is true, but if true it means that each IOC member will vote for as few sports as possible, in the hopes that at least one of their non-preferred sports fails to gain a majority.

I am also assuming that the delegates will be voting on each of the 28 sports, and not disciplines within those sports. This agrees with all published reports that I have seen. The distinction is not necessarily obvious to everybody, but it is critical to the outcome. It means, for example, that the delegates will be voting on the sport of Aquatics, and not on the component disciplines of Swimming, Diving, Synchro, and Water Polo. Obviously, this is good news for Synchro! There are several similar cases where a potentially vulnerable discipline (e.g. Trampoline) will benefit from an untouchable protector (e.g. Artistic Gymnastics).

Before we go any further, it is worth pointing out that the 117 IOC members, who represent 79 different countries, are not evenly distributed according to region. Table 1 shows the number of active IOC members for each of the continental Olympic Associations.

Table 1 — IOC votes by continent
Continent Active IOC Members
Europe 53
Asia 22
Africa 19
Americas 18
Oceania 5
Total 117

Remember: a sport will need a simple majority of 59 out of 117 votes to remain on the programme. This means that a European-dominated sport like modern pentathlon starts out with a huge advantage over an Asian-dominated sport like badminton, even though badminton might be an order of magnitude more popular worldwide.

I've attempted to come up with some simple measures of a nation's interest in a sport. When I say "simple" I mean that the data are easy to obtain on the web, and also that they are not very sophisticated. Nevertheless I think that they might provide some interesting insight into the voting tendencies of the committee.

Let's assume that a delegate will vote in favour of a sport if his or her country has won at least one Olympic medal in that sport. This criterion gives the same weight to a bronze medal in 1904 as it does to six medals in 2004, but using a long time baseline does allow some of the ups and downs of national performance to be smoothed out. The historical medal data by sport and nation are available from the NOC database of the Athens 2004 web site. I call this the "historical medals" criterion.

Let's also assume that a delegate will vote in favour of a sport if at least one athlete from his or her country participated in that sport in the 2004 summer games. This one is problematic for sports with tough qualifying standards, especially team sports. On the other hand, it should be a more current and more generous measure of a nation's interest in a sport than my "historical medals" definition. The participant numbers by nation and sport discipline are available from the participant database of the Athens 2004 web site. I call this the "2004 participation" criterion.

Table 2 summarizes the results of the hypothetical vote, using these two methods of estimating national interest. I present the projected votes using only the "historical medals" definition, using only the "2004 participation" definition, and then the combined score under "either or both." The 28 sports have been divided into non-team sports and team sports, and then ranked according to the total votes in the "either or both" column.

Table 2 — projected IOC votes by sport
Sport Projected Votes
Historical Medals 2004 Participants Either or Both
  Non-team Sports
Athletics 90 117 117
Aquatics 67 113 113
Shooting 74 99 99
Weightlifting 73 71 93
Judo 57 90 90
Boxing 76 73 88
Wrestling 63 78 84
Tennis 53 83 83
Sailing 63 81 82
Rowing 55 82 82
Cycling 55 80 80
Fencing 48 71 75
Equestrian 52 69 73
Gymnastics 59 69 72
Taekwondo 32 69 71
Canoe/Kayak 50 69 69
Table Tennis 15 66 66
Archery 40 61 62
Triathlon 12 60 60
Modern Pentathlon 26 54 56
Badminton 9 55 55
  Team Sports
Football 48 35 63
Volleyball 36 40 44
Basketball 30 32 42
Handball 31 27 39
Hockey 28 28 33
Baseball 10 18 24
Softball 10 18 18

Given the heroic assumptions, it would be unwise to make any wagers based on the results, especially since most of the non-team sports end up above or very close to the required 59 votes. This is an interesting result in itself, however, and suggests to me that we are not going to see a massive programme amputation at the July session. In fact, overall my analysis probably underestimates the number of votes for each sport, so it seems possible that all of the non-team sports will be brought back for 2012.

As for the ranking order, common wisdom has it that modern pentathlon is the non-team sport most at risk, and sure enough my analysis shows it to be near the bottom of the pile. I have heard some speculation about shooting and weightlifting, but I don't see any worries there. Equestrian, fencing, taekwondo, and canoe/kayak have been having a few sleepless nights too, but they appear to have enough delegate support to survive. Archery is another sport worried about its status, and I do show them on the bubble.

On the other hand, I haven't heard anybody worrying about badminton, which comes in last in my ranking. The shockingly small number of "medal" votes (9) is partly due to the fact that badminton only became a medal sport in 1992, but it still indicates a lack of competitive balance that might hurt it. There have been 61 medals awarded in badminton in Olympic history, and 50 of them have been won by China, Indonesia, and Korea (Malaysia, Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands have won the rest). The number of "participation" votes is also the smallest of the non-team sports. This is one sport that could be hurt by Asia's underrepresentation on the IOC. Remember, if badminton is voted out, you heard it here first!

Although it is outside the scope of my assumptions, there's an interesting political possibility here as well. It turns out that the delegate overlap for badminton and modern pentathlon is quite low. Of the 55 votes I am predicting for Badminton, only 35 of them also have an interest in Modern Pentathlon. That means that there are about 20 votes out there with an interest in Badminton and no interest in Modern Pentathlon, and vice versa. This in turn opens up the possibility of vote bargaining between delegates.

For the team sports, it isn't really fair to use the projections as an estimate of the total votes, because of the hard limit on the participation numbers. This means that the projected vote totals for the team sports are certainly underestimates. However, it is still interesting to compare the team sport numbers to each other. Baseball and softball are way down the list, which is again in agreement with the conventional wisdom. The "medal" comparison is slightly unfair because both have only been on the programme for a few Olympics. Both sports are also hurt by the fact that they are single-discipline, single-event sports. Each of the other team sports has a men's and a women's event, which boosts both the "medal" votes and the "participation" votes. In reality, I think that this oddity will hurt baseball and softball. The more events a sport has, the more difficult it will be to vote it off of the programme.

To try to put baseball and softball on the same scale as the non-team sports, I expanded the "participation" votes to include all of the countries that competed in the Olympic qualifying events. In this case, baseball ends up with 59 votes, which puts it just barely over the acceptance threshold. For softball, even the expanded picture still looks pretty bleak: including all of the countries that participated in the 2002 World Championships and the three 2003 regional qualifying tournaments increases the total to only 45. To survive, softball is going to have to get significant delegate support from countries that don't compete at a high international level. Add to this the fact that softball is on president Rogge's hit list, and things don't look good.

If I was going to place bets on the outcome of the vote, I would guess that softball is going down, and baseball will probably be dragged out with it by the most backwards kind of "gender-equity" reasoning. I predict that all of the non-team sports will survive, but it will be a close call for modern pentathlon and badminton.

May 10, 2005

USOC Making Changes

There have been a lot of changes within the US Olympic Committee in the last couple of years. They've already reduced their executive board from more than 120 (!) to 11. Now they've announced two significant changes to the way they distribute funding.

First, they've taken some of the savings from recent layoffs and other measures, and doubled the training allowance they give directly to Olympic and Paralympic athletes (analogous to the COC's Excellence Fund). Curiously, they don't disclose how much they currently pay.

Second, they've changed the funding criteria for the sport national governing bodies (NGBs). Currently, each NGB gets an automatic annual grant of $250,000; the USOC has decided that in the future all funding will be awarded based on progress toward Olympic performance goals.

In making these changes, the USOC actually seems to be trailing their Canadian counterpart, among others, which is surprising. If the USOC is so messed up, then how have the Americans been so dominant at the Olympics?

There are a couple of reasons for that, I think. First of all, the USOC, despite its organizational shortcomings, is still the wealthiest National Olympic Committee in the world. When you have a lot of money, you can absorb a lot of waste and still come out on top (see also: U.S. Department of Defense).

And second, I have to wonder just how important the USOC is in the big picture. Of course the NGBs, some of which receive 75% of their funding from the USOC, play a critical role in grassroots sport development. But most elite US athletes (and many non-US ones) get much more support from an independent source. I'm talking about the NCAA, which administers a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars for intercollegiate sports. I would bet that, in general, a sport's success at the Olympics is much more closely linked to NCAA support than it is to USOC support.

May 07, 2005

Olympic Legacies for the Home Team

Here in Canada there has been a lot of discussion about Olympic legacies in the last few years. This has been spurred by the succesful winter Olympic bid by Vancouver, and the two failed summer Olympic bids by Toronto.

When Vancouver made their attempt to host the 2010 winter Olympics, some in the summer sports community were rooting against them. I received an e-mail from a 1996 Olympian that expressed the sentiment well:

One thing to consider: if Vancouver wins the bid, Toronto won't have a chance at all for 2012 (no matter how slim it might appear already!). Canada already has Olympic quality Winter training facilities, which are in the West. Wouldn't Summer Olympic training facilities, in the center of our big empty country […] be a much better balance?

Of course, Vancouver did win the bid, and Toronto (wisely) did not bid for 2012. So is this a loss for summer sports, at the expense of the winter ones?

In one sense, yes. As the writer noted, the sports facilities that are constructed in the host region are an important legacy of an Olympic games. Canadians know very well that the Calgary facilities — particularly the speed skating oval and the bobsleigh track — have had a major impact on the development of Canadian athletes.

On the other hand, the facilities are only part of the story. The Calgary Olympics also generated a large financial windfall for the Canadian Olympic Committee. The COC has grown this endowment in the intervening 17 years, and at the same time plowed much of the income into high performance sport. This is now a significant source of support for winter and summer athletes alike.

This story from The Weekend Australian describes how the Australian Olympic Committee extracted $90M from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and how astute investing has turned that into $112M (an Australian dollar is roughly equal to a Canadian dollar). The AOC is now the second-wealthiest national Olympic committee in the world, and they are projecting an outlay of $24.5M for athlete preparation in the run-up to Beijing.

The point is, hosting an Olympic games can generate a financial legacy that goes well beyond the facilities. The financial gains from Vancouver 2010 — while not guaranteed — could be a huge boon to all Canadian athletes.

May 06, 2005

Federal Government "Waste" in Athens

I cringed when I read this story last week, detailing how the Canadian government "wasted big sums" sending government big-wigs to the 2004 summer Olympics. Thankfully, the story seems to have died a quick death, as I have not seen it picked up anywhere else.

The "big sums" in question are in fact incredibly small:

… the federal government spent thousands on hospitality and travel for its government officials, more than $270,000 in hotels and security, more than $70,000 on Olympic tickets, nearly $20,000 handing out Canada pins.

Geez, $360K "wasted." This compared to a Sport Canada budget of about $120M for 2004-05, of which about $15M went directly into athletes' pockets through the Athlete Assistance Program, and another $30M went to the NSFs for Olympic sports. Even CTV had a hard time finding anybody who was willing to be outraged about this, at one point quoting one of their own reporters for her reaction. Top-notch journalism, there.

Looked at another way, the $360K, divided up equally among the 265 athletes on the Olympic team, would have meant another $1360 per athlete for 2004, or roughly one extra month of Athlete Assistance Program funding. Not peanuts to those athletes, for sure, but also not the difference between mediocrity and excellence.

I don't mean to make light of government waste of taxpayer dollars. But I think of this as a kind of "marketing cost" for high-performance athletes. The only reason politicians want a paid trip to the Olympics is because, well, they think that the Olympics are cool. And politicians who think that the Olympics are cool are the ones who want Canada to do better. Therein lies the path to increased funding! In this light, $360K looks like a real bargain.

The politicians who see this as a waste of taxpayer dollars probably think that any funding of high-performance sport is a waste of taxpayer dollars. And those are not the kind of politicians that Canada's elite athletes want on their side.

May 05, 2005

Blurring the Lines

Read this story about double amputee Oscar Pistorius of South Africa.

Pistorius, who runs the sprints with two carbon-fibre "blades" where you and I have legs, will run in an IAAF Grand Prix event in Helsinki in July, and hopes to race in the Olympics in 2008.

Pistorius' world record 400 m time of 47.34 seconds would have placed him 47th in Athens, faster than 14 of the competitors but about 1.5 seconds too slow to qualify for the semi-finals. (About 30 seconds faster than I can run it, mind you …) The only South African in the event ran 45.95, also not quite fast enough to make the semis.

Considering that Pistorius is only 18 years old, a 1.5 second improvement in four years does not seem out of the question. But what will happen when he qualifies to compete at the Olympics? As is alluded to in the article, the IAAF is eventually going to have to deal with the extremely uncomfortable question of whether Pistorius' sophisticated prostheses offer him an advantage over a runner who is fortunate enough to have two legs.

Not to compare Pistorius to athletes who voluntarily have their bodies modified to gain a competitive advantage, but this reminded me that Greg at Sports Law Blog has written a couple of recent posts on the subject of performance-enhancing surgery of various types (start here and work back).

May 02, 2005

Colangelo In Charge

One of the most interesting stories from the 2004 summer Olympics, in my opinion, was the men's basketball tournament. I wouldn't have predicted that, since they've been almost unwatchable since 1992. That's the year that USA Basketball selected their original "Dream Team" of NBA stars to represent them. I don't object to the presence of the NBA professionals, but I never have much interest in watching a sporting event where the outcome is not in doubt.

I remember at the time having a debate with one of my roommates about just what this meant for the future of men's basketball at the Olympics. It seemed obvious that the USA would be unbeatable in 1992; my roommate (who was somewhat prone to hyperbole) asserted that they would never lose another game. Although I was fairly certain that they would lose a game someday, I never expected them to lose the gold medal just 12 years later.

Obviously, the losses and the associated controversy in Athens have initiated some soul-searching at USA Basketball. Last week they announced that Phoenix Suns CEO Jerry Colangelo will take over as the men's senior national team Program Managing Director (thanks to Ralph Hickok for putting me onto the story). The selection was backed up with the following quote from president Val Ackerman:

We can think of no one more qualified than Jerry Colangelo to lead the effort and to restore the U.S. senior men's national team program to a position of global pre-eminence.

Of course the hand-wringing is a bit of a joke. Since the introduction of the Dream Team the men's national team has gone 74-6 in international competition, and won the gold medal in 8 of 10 tournaments. Granted, the 2004 bronze medal matches their worst Olympic performance ever, but only an American could look at that situation and see a "trend toward international insignificance."

Colangelo will have final authority over player selections, replacing a committee of 10 that selected the 2004 roster. He also has some ambitious plans, which include keeping the national team assembled in some form between major competitions. That's a really good idea, but it will be interesting to see what kind of cooperation he gets from the NBA players. It seems to me that the NBA's elite have completely lost interest in the Olympics in recent years. Perhaps that will change now that some of the games are actual contests, or perhaps not. Colangelo is going to have to find a way to spur their patriotic pride.

Since 1936, when basketball first appeared on the Olympic programme, the US has made dramatic changes in the way that they approach the competition. (In many ways this is analogous to ice hockey in Canada). From 1936 through 1956, the team trials consisted of an invitational tournament including the best amateur and college teams. The national team was then selected from the best teams in the tournament; as a rule this meant that the players were drawn from two of the best amateur teams in the country, with perhaps a couple of other outstanding individuals thrown in. The winning club or college team by itself would have won the gold medal anyway; I am sure that the decision to use players from more than one team arose from a desire to give more young players an Olympic experience.

The 1960 team was the first to use a true "all-star" format, with athletes from eleven different schools. The USA continued with this format through 1988, all the while watching their dominance be eroded. As the "amateur" period came to a close, they actually lost a few games, including the infamous gold medal matchup with the USSR in 1972.

The professional era opened with the first Dream Team in 1992, after a bronze medal performance in 1988, and for a while the US men's team was again untouchable. But that didn't last for long.

It is possible that improved management can push the USA back to a dominant position, for a while, but any change Jerry Colangelo can make will be tiny compared to the changes that have come before. In the first seven summer Olympics where basketball was played, the US team went 54-0, took home all seven gold medals, and won their games by an average of 32 points. Those days are never going to return, and those of us who live in the rest of the world can be thankful for that.