Since the turn of the century, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has given out more than three-quarters of a billion dollars in grants to national sports federations to support their goals of putting U.S. athletes on the podium. Sportico analyzed nearly two decades of USOPC tax filings to determine how the organization chooses how to divvy up its funds.
The money is, for the most part, allocated with the purpose of increasing the country’s overall medal haul. The five Summer Olympic sports that have received the most funds since 2003 are the five in which the U.S. has garnered the most medals: track and field, swimming, gymnastics, shooting and wrestling.
The U.S. has won the most medals in the aforementioned sports mostly due to the fact that there are so many events and therefore, medals available. Team sports like soccer and basketball actually receive far more funding per medal than track and field, for instance, since running an operation for a roster of more than a dozen players in each gender is expensive. The USOPC clearly deems the costs for those team sports to be worthwhile given their popularity.
Available medals aside, if a team consistently performs at the Olympics, then it will be supported financially. Take volleyball, for instance, which only has four events. The U.S. has managed to average three medals per cycle since 2004, and the team has been rewarded with the most funding of any team sport. Gymnastics has also proven its worth.
In a similar vein, the U.S. cycling team had its best Games in recent history in Rio, winning two golds and three silvers; it has seen a commensurate boost in funding since.
Conversely, when a team disappoints in competition, it may lose USOPC funding as a consequence. After the U.S. won two bronze medals in Artistic Swimming in 2004 in Athens, it ranked in the top half of summer sports receiving funding over the following three years. When both the duet and the team failed to medal in 2008, the sport’s cash flow started decreasing dramatically, to the point where it received less than 28 of the 36 summer sports in 2019.
The USOPC seems to have given up on several other sports as well, including canoeing, a discipline that hasn’t seen a U.S. medalist since 2004. Similarly, the U.S. hasn’t qualified in team handball since its automatic bid as the host city in 1996. No reasonable amount of money is likely to boost the team from not participating to winning a medal, and therefore USA Team Handball receives only minimal money for organizational purposes.
But sometimes, all it takes is just one athlete to put a sport back in the USOPC’s favor. USA Pentathlon didn’t receive a penny in 2008, but after Margaux Isaksen qualified for Beijing at age 16, the USOPC suddenly had a newfound interest in the event. Even after Isaksen finished fourth in 2012, the money kept pumping in. When the team came away empty handed again in 2016, however, the USOPC pulled the plug.
In some unique circumstances, a federation will not receive funding commensurate with its performance. For instance, the U.S. has consistently medaled in tennis due to strong women’s players and doubles teams. And yet, the U.S. Tennis Association hardly gets any support from the USOPC.
One reason: The USTA has a massive and reliable annual revenue stream in the U.S. Open. Secondly, tennis is relatively cheap compared to, say, the pricey equipment required for sailing or the maintenance of live animals in equestrian. Lastly, the athletes representing the U.S.in tennis are professionals who would have their own year-round training routines with or without help from the USOPC.
Another way the USOPC deviates slightly from a purely performance-oriented approach is by giving some funds to non-Olympic sports, since those teams still represent the U.S. in the Pan-Am Games. In recent years, though, the committee has downsized its long-term investments in potential Olympic sports, such as bowling and squash, in favor of existing sports with an immediate potential payoff.
Once new sports get added to the Olympic program, such as rugby in 2016 and a handful of others for Tokyo, the USOPC generally ramps up funding quickly.
With American Jagger Eaton medaling in skateboarding in its first appearance at the Summer Games this past weekend, the sport’s federation is likely due for another increase in financial support next cycle. It received money from the USOPC for the first time in 2019.
The medals-to-money-to-medals feedback loop is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. However, it is clear that, to some extent, how teams perform over the next week and a half will determine how much financial support they receive going forward. That could, in turn, improve or worsen their chances of medaling in Paris three years from now.