I'll never forget it. It was a simple question that resulted in a feeling of shame and greed. Yet, 14 years later, my inquiry drives my belief: Olympic medals should be accompanied by prize money.
It was the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, and I was hanging out with my coach waiting to be awarded my Olympic medal. Casually, I asked how much prize money he thought I was going to get for winning the bronze medal at the Olympic Games.
All I knew, as a 19-year-old athlete, was what I received from my previous World Cup competitions. I had won medals and received prize money.
The look of horror was evident on my coach's face. "There is no prize money at the Olympics," he quickly informed me. The Games are about prestige, honour and greatness. It's not supposed to be about money for the athletes. My shame was instantaneous, followed immediately by guilt over my perceived greediness.
But I didn't understand why. Every week at international competitions, I wore the Canadian colours and competed. It was prestigious and an honour to represent my country. Yet, when I won, I won prize money.
Why would the Olympics be different?
Time for IOC to share wealth
Fourteen years later, the shame has faded and I've become more steadfast in my opinion. The IOC should be paying prize money to the athletes.
The IOC generates billions in broadcast revenues and marketing dollars.
NBC spent $7.65 billion US for the American broadcast rights for the Games until 2032. (CBC has the Canadian broadcast rights until 2024, but financial terms weren't made public.)
In addition to broadcast revenue, the IOC is generating a wealth of advertising revenue. They currently have 11 worldwide Olympic partners. These companies pay a premium (in excess of $200 million) to associate (and block their competitors from associating) with the Olympic Games, including worldwide rights in every country with a National Olympic Committee (all 204 of them). So finding money to pay athletes shouldn't be an issue.
The IOC says it redistributes revenue back into the sport system. Ninety per cent of its income is re-directed to National Olympic Committees (like the Canadian Olympic Committee), International Federations (like FIFA, IAAF, FINA and others) and the Organizing Committees for each Olympic Games. Essentially, the IOC (a large, politically influenced bureaucratic organization) is funding the bureaucracy of sport.
So if the money is there, then it must be for PR reasons that the IOC chooses not to award prize money with its medals. With news of an IOC audit, and more bribery, corruption and doping scandals in bureaucracy, the Olympic organization needs to make some changes.
The IOC says its purpose is to support a system of encouraging participation and helping people build a future through the power of sport. But the athlete receives no direct support from the massive entity generating revenue from their pursuit of greatness.
Prize money may not fix everything, but it's a start. A means of connecting and contributing to the athletes.
In 2006, the Canadian Olympic Committee made a similar change. Plagued by apathy and a general misunderstanding of the support they were giving an athlete through the sport body, they re-created a system for directly supporting athletes. Athletes began receiving "Money for Medals," a financial reward throughout the Olympic cycle. The Athlete Excellence Fund directly supports athletes attaining top five or top three finishes at world championships, World Cup overall standings and Olympics. The support varies depending on when in the Olympic cycle the result was achieved.
Paired with various other athlete-centric initiatives, the COC understood something the IOC hasn't. To effectively create a positive relationship with athletes, it's essential to fund them. Without shame, I can finally say financial rewards are a great place to start. Money from the top of the pyramid to the bottom. No middle man. No bribery. No corruption. No bureaucracy.
The Olympic medal will always remain priceless. It represents an indescribable journey. An envelope of prize money won't change that but it might help connect that athlete to the larger movement.