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Aug. 22, 2016 — … but at what cost?

There’s a discussion within the media of the United Kingdom about the intrinsic and extrinsic value of Olympic sport. And it is a discussion which could very well spread to not only here in the U.S., but also to other nations who see the Olympics as a bloated and unsustainable entity.

The Guardian is amongst the news organizations which have linked the tremendous outlays of money (upwards of £280 million before Rio 2016) to a rise in the medals table. Team GB (which encompasses England, Scotland, and Wales) was fourth in Rio, with 67 medals, the largest haul since 1908.

Meanwhile, there has been a mass shuttering of recreational facilities all over the British Isles as the trickle-down effect of athletics participation projected since London 2012 has not materialized.

Here in the U.S., while the Americans are at the top of the medals table, there has not been as wide-ranging a discussion about costs. The American basketball teams, featuring multi-million dollar professionals, stayed aboard a cruise ship docked at Port Mara. The money came from USA Basketball and tech firm Cisco Systems.

All of that money, mind you, was spent on just two gold medals. And nobody in the U.S. media questioned it.

A lot of the self-examination of Olympic spending has gone to team sports in the years since Norm Blake headed the U.S. Olympic Committee. As popular as water polo and field hockey and court volleyball have been in pockets of the United States, the outlay in order to field a competitive side is pretty high.

Take, for instance, the peripatetic women’s field hockey side. It set up residency at the Virginia Sportsplex back in 2001, in a facility which was built at a cost of some $9 million, according to the mayor at the time. A disagreement over on-site medical facilities caused USA Field Hockey to move its entire operation to Chula Vista, Calif. back in 2008. We don’t know exactly what was spent on the move, but we do know that about a million dollars was spent after the move to replace the turf on both Virginia Beach pitches.

And then, there is Spooky Nook. The building, a former aluminum distribution center, was originally purchased for more than $11 million by the developer, and it’s estimated that some $35 million has been spent on the grounds, including the installation of athletic facilities for the U.S. women’s national team, a hotel, a pro shop, and dozens of indoor courts for soccer, indoor field hockey, and basketball. Again, it is an enormous cost to try to win Olympic medals in one sport.

Now, since the reign of Norm Blake as the head of the U.S. Olympic Committee, there has been an emphasis on mining medals in individual events such as track and field, wrestling, boxing, fencing, and swimming that can vault a country towards the top of the medals table.

However, those athletic endeavors tend to feature poorly-funded individuals who do not enjoy world-class domestic competition in between Olympic years.

Indeed, as much as Michael Phelps has expressed the desire to jump-start changes in the sport of swimming, there has been very little chance for swimmers to gain exposure outside of the Olympic Games. FINA and USA Swimming have not been able to figure out how to get a made-for-TV formula for events to promote the sport.

That can’t be said for team sports such as basketball, soccer, and even field hockey, which gets a few broadcasts every year.

I can’t see the U.S. Olympic Committee altering its funding formula any time soon, because it seems to have kept the U.S. at the top of the medals table. And that seems to be the bottom line, the welfare of individual athletes be damned.

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