American Olympians Only Make $12,000 a Year. Is It Ruining Their Shot at the Gold?

Many of the U.S. athletes competing in Rio De Janeiro this summer made huge financial sacrifices to get there. Gordon Crawford wants to change that

As American athletes bow to receive their medals at the Olympic Games this month, Gordon Crawford will also feel victorious. The chairman of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation, founded in 2014, last year helped raise $28 million for the U.S. Olympic Committee, money that went toward funding training centers and athletes’ living expenses as they prepared for Rio. It’s just the start of what he envisions as a massive philanthropic effort on behalf of American competitors at future Winter and Summer Games. Crawford’s introduction to the Olympic spectacle came on a cold February day in 1984, when he traveled to Sarajevo as a guest of ABC. At the time Crawford worked at Capital Group, one of the world’s largest financial service firms, founded in L.A. the year before the city hosted the 1932 Summer Games. He has missed only three Olympics since that trip to the old Yugoslavia. We spoke to Crawford at his La Cañada home amid a vast collection of Olympic memorabilia. 

Explain how the U.S. Olympic effort is funded, or should we say underfunded?
The U.S. Olympic Committee gets a cut of broadcasting revenues from the Games. It’s the largest revenue source. But a lot of people think, Oh, all those NBC revenues must go to the USOC. Well, they don’t. All the NBC revenues go to the International Olympic Committee and into a pool, and we get a prescribed percentage. The IOC also sells global sponsorships to companies—Coca-Cola, Samsung—that want to own the Olympic branding in their category all around the world. That money goes to the IOC, and again, we get a predetermined piece of that. So those are the two biggest pieces.

How much of this money typically trickles down to an American Olympian?
The USOC has been able to offer American athletes about $12,000 a year. So this revenue isn’t enough? Not against countries like Russia, which has a state-sponsored system. On top of that, Putin goes around to different oligarchs and says, “You’ve got the biathlon team,” and those athletes fly around in G4s and have trainers and the best equipment—on top of doping, of course. China has a totally state-run system. They are taking seven-year-old girls from the hinterlands away from their families and putting them in the sports school in Beijing. They see their parents once a year. That’s whom we’re competing with.

So the United States is one of the few countries that shun government funding?
Two hundred of the 204 countries out there have direct government support. The public doesn’t understand that we don’t get anything from the government. If you want to settle into your couch in August every four years and cheer on your teams, we need to give them more because they are falling behind these other countries. 

Gordon Crawford
Gordon Crawford

Photograph by Christina Gandolfo

What’s an example of how the gap makes us less competitive?
The stuff that gets me are stories like how the U.S. never earned a medal in Nordic combined skiing until 2010. What finally happened was that the U.S. ski and snowboard program found a couple of kids who were promising. These kids trained for maybe eight years, and they finally won medals in Vancouver. But that’s parents mortgaging houses, making sacrifices. These kids had no sponsorships. They’re dedicating years of their lives, and their families are dedicating a tremendous amount of resources and energy so they have a shot to represent their country.

I would bet most Americans are unaware of the funding shortfall. How do you envision fixing it?
My job is to convince America’s citizens that if you’re proud of your team and you want to see them do well, we need your help. My dream is—if we do it right, and it’ll take some time—why couldn’t there be a couple million Americans, out of 323 million, who care enough about their team to give a hundred dollars a year? And if we got that, it would be $200 million. And then we’re building out a whole regional staff to drive the major-gift program. Like every good nonprofit, we’re going to have a planned-giving side of it, with people thinking about leaving something in their will. My aspiration is that ten years from now we will have helped create an enduring philanthropic entity for Team USA.

What I love about the Olympics is that on one level it’s the greatest sporting event in the world. On another level it has an element of patriotism. And on a third level there’s the dream of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, who wanted to bring all the young people of the world together for a big sports event every four years, to promote understanding. He hoped the Olympics might make the world a safer and more peaceful place, and it doesn’t always work that way, but on a lot of levels it does.

Crawford was at the Coliseum in 1984 when Mary Decker collided with Zola Budd and fell in the 3000 meters
Crawford was at the Coliseum in 1984 when Mary Decker collided with Zola Budd and fell in the 3000 meters

Photograph by Tony Duff / Getty Images

Los Angeles is once again campaigning to host the Olympics and appears to be a front-runner for the 2024 Games. The 1984 Olympics in L.A. made a lot of money, which is unusual for a Games, with the surplus funds used to establish the LA84 Foundation. Over the years the nonprofit has spent roughly $220 million to aid more than 1,000 sports programs across Southern California. Do the existing infrastructure and the financial success of 1984 help?
One of the main competitive advantages in our bid is the infrastructure. The only venue we have to build is for kayaking. Everything else we’ve got a home for. The most important thing, which saved a billion and a half dollars, was getting UCLA to be the athletes’ village, which if you’ve seen the UCLA rooms and the dining facilities and stuff, will be the most luxurious of any athletes’ village so far. Then USC will be the media center. So it’s a super-sustainable bid that nobody can compete with. We’re also the most multicultural city in the world, we have great weather, we’re the home of the entertainment business, and we made money in ’84. So yeah, we have a very strong bid. Realistically our competition is with Paris. I mean, Rome is a mess, and Budapest, with a right-wing guy running the country, doesn’t have a prayer. It’s Paris or L.A. The disadvantage we have is that out of 100 IOC members, almost half are European, so it’s still an old boys’ club.

If Donald Trump were to become the next president of the United States, would that affect L.A.’s chances?
It would hurt us. Look, the vote is in Lima, Peru, in 2017, so who knows what intangibles might come into play. Who knows what will be going through the minds of the IOC members who are voting. If Donald Trump has said a bunch of outrageous things about different countries, you may lose their votes. If Hillary’s in, maybe a little bit of the Bill Clinton pixie dust gets spread around. He’s a big international figure—maybe he throws his weight in. 

You’ll be in Rio for this year’s Games. Any concerns about security?
I always worry about going to places. I worried about going to Sochi, and I would say 20 percent of our donors passed on attending because they read articles in the paper that there was going to be a black widow bomber. I went over there with some trepidation, but it was a great Olympics. As for Brazil, the country’s in a depression, their president is being impeached. Hopefully that won’t affect the Games, because the buildings are done and they’ve already had competitions in most of the venues. Now there’s always something that’s last minute, like in Athens they were painting some venues the day before. But I think they’re basically going to be ready. People are worried about the Zika virus. I wouldn’t recommend somebody who’s pregnant being there.

Do you have a favorite sport?
I was a swimmer in college. I swam the 200 and the 500 freestyle for Wesleyan in Connecticut, but I was the bench. When I go to the Summer Olympics, I attend a lot of the swimming finals. My wife, Dona, loves gymnastics. But we make a point every Olympics to find something unique, so when we were in Beijing, we did Ping-Pong and badminton, which was fantastic. In London we went to Lord’s Cricket Ground to watch archery, to see Mongolians hit these targets from an enormous distance. In L.A. I went every day. I was there when Mary Decker got tripped and fell. For the opening ceremonies I took my whole family, and we left five hours early, expecting bad L.A. traffic, and we were down at the Coliseum in 22 minutes.

We’re sitting in front of a wall-length cabinet with a complete set of Olympic torches, and behind us is a room filled with Olympic memorabilia…There are only three complete collections of those torches in the world. The IOC has one, I have one, and there’s apparently one other guy who has one, although some people think he doesn’t have a complete set. I have pretty much a complete collection of participant medals, winners’ medals, and official reports, and a huge collection of badges that were used prior to 1984 by officials; after ’84, everybody had paper credentials. I’m going to give it all to the USOC at some point. I’ve already donated the money to build an archive at their headquarters in Colorado Springs.

What’s the rarest item in this case?
The hardest one to get was the Helsinki torch from the 1952 Summer Games. I know there were only a few of them made. Some of them are in museums, and the rest are in private hands. It took me 20 years until one of the owners needed money and I could get my hands on it.