Sign in / Join

Should US Olympic Training Be Federally Supported?

Here’s a short post about the sacrifices made to make an athlete an Olympian.

Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Olympians.

It may not have the ring of the original Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings song title, but it certainly applies – considering some of the financial back-stories at the London Olympics. Think about U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte, whose divorced parents are facing the foreclosure of their Florida home. Or U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas, whose mother filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. One of four children, Douglas all but acknowledged earlier this week how her budding Olympic career took an economic toll. “It was definitely hard on my mom, taking care of me and my siblings,” she told the New York Post.

This has lead, predictably, to this.

Making the situation all the more difficult for U.S. athletes: there’s no direct federal support, as is the case in most other nations. ...

Given those horror stories, it’s perhaps no surprise that lawmakers have recently started to talk about tax relief for Olympic athletes – or at least for those athletes who are fortunate enough to win medals. (The honors come with cash prizes awarded by the United States Olympic Committee: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze.)

I suppose you could make the argument that there is some sort of positive externality argument that can be made in favor of tax support: winning medals in the Olympics leads to national pride, and so on.  But I really wonder how much value, long term external value especially, there is in winning a medal.

Folks of my age remember the decorated swimmer Mark Spitz.  Can you remember how many medals he won and in what Olympics?  No googling for the answer.

OK, if you knew and you are an American, did you feel a welling of national pride?  I didn’t think so.

Sure there are stories that still send shivers up some folks’ spines.  How about the US hockey team beating the Soviets is 1980 and taking the gold?  But those are the exceptions (and there was some unique political back story to that victory).

The US has a vibrant private sports market that leads to a lessening of the national importance of the Olympics and I am far from convinced that Olympic training is something that would be an efficient use of federal tax money.

Mr. Spitz won 7 golds in 1972.

Cross-posted at Market Power