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Olympic athletes live in poverty while executives get rich, federal report finds

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) - After more than 3,000 interviews, focus groups and surveys, the congressionally-appointed Commission on the State of the U.S. Olympics & Paralympics has delivered its final report, and the summation is blistering: It is "a system that has failed athletes."

The new revelations come after KRDO13 investigated some Olympic teams moving from Colorado Springs to North Carolina. High-ranking officials on multiple Olympic teams say they need more resources to continue training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

KRDO13 through records requests, has also found no receipts documenting agreed-upon improvements to the Colorado Springs-based Olympic Training Center, despite an agreement earmarking millions of taxpayer dollars to achieve those ends. However, the City of Colorado Springs says it's "aware" that the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is spending the money from taxpayers as intended in a 2009 agreement.

The Olympic Congressional Commission's 277-page report details a lack of financial transparency within the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), and what information was gleaned from the USOPC's 990 tax forms and tens of thousands of other financial statements, was that very few "shed meaningful light on the organizations’ finances," the report states. 

The quest for financial information was occasionally met with "hostile" responses according to the report, despite the Commission's statutory charge.

The Commission outlines how Olympic executives are paid in the millions of dollars, while many athletes are in poverty as they pursue their athletic aspirations.

The report states that "some of the most talented competitors under our flag go to sleep at night under the roof of a car," while one unnamed speedskater shared that she relied upon food stamps as she trained six days a week before the Sochi Olympics in 2014.  Others report they are forced to abandon their endeavors, unable to make ends meet.

According to the report, 59.1% of USOPC and governing-body executives and board members surveyed earn more than $150,000 annually, while 26.5% of current athletes earn less than $15,000 annually; the cost to compete, for most athletes, averaged $12,000 a year.

According to the USOPC's non-profit 990s from 2021, the most recent available, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland made $1,140,343.

The USOPC, however, does award gold-winning Olympians or Paralympians $37,500, and Team USA athletes can apply to receive up to $10,000 for training and travel expenses through the Simon Grant. It was not made clear how many Team USA athletes had been helped through the grant. A spokesperson also referred to total sponsorship/endorsement deals to 277 athletes amounting to $811,000 through the Team USA Athlete Marketing Platform, in addition to tuition and $25,000 grants given to four athletes involved in youth sports.

"Financially, something needs to change," says Han Xiao, who was appointed as co-chair of the Commission.  "The athletes who are at your world championship level, who are at an elite level I think at the very least, should be able to make a living wage somehow.  They shouldn't be living out of their cars, they shouldn't be homeless, they shouldn't have to resort to GoFundMe, or having their parents take out mortgages so they can pursue athletic excellence when they're on the world stage."

The Commission makes twelve recommendations, including reformations to the Amateur Sports Act, the institution of an Inspector General, more investment in paralympic sports, and independent funding of the whistle-blowing SafeSport, after many respondents distrusted the entity's independence.

"We see them as inspirational, as heroes, what we aspire to be.  We don't generally see them as people who have to beg for scraps and ask for money just to support themselves, to put food on the table.  All of the organizations that are involved in this movement should be accountable to somebody. It shouldn't be a mystery how they're spending their money," says Xiao.

The Commission also recommends congressional action and greater involvement from state and local governments.

On behalf of the Olympic Committee, City of Colorado Springs spokesperson Vanessa Zink claimed to KRDO13 that the USOPC provided at least 47,000 requested documents to the Congressional Committee.

There is a federal hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee of Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Wednesday, March 20, regarding the Commission's report.


In 2009, Colorado Springs entered into a $31.7 million agreement with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to keep its headquarters here. The city took out a loan from the Colorado Springs Public Facilities Authority to finance the deal. The city now pays around $1.7 million a year on that loan. The agreement also requires a portion of the money the city gave the USOPC to be used toward improvements at the Olympic Training Center.

KRDO13 requested itemized receipts and documentation showing proof of those improvements at the Olympic Training Center from the City.  The City said it could not locate any such documentation of the improvements. The city says its agreement does not require the USOPC to provide documentation of the taxpayer-funded improvements made to the Olympic Training Center

"However, the City is aware through discussions with the USOPC that the COP [loan] funding was used as intended by the agreement. Further, the USOPC’s obligation is to retain their national headquarters and the USOPTC in Colorado Springs for at least 30 years, which they are fulfilling," city spokesperson Vanessa Zink said.

A 2013 article, however, in the Colorado Springs Business Journal, outlined the taxpayer-funded projects.

Construction on a new strength and conditioning building and renovations to the sports medicine and recovery building were to be done for $8.2 million; about half of the $16 million promised in the incentive package earmarked for the Olympic Training Center. 

“The $16 million in OTC improvements you reference wasn’t solely from the City (the City’s portion through certificate of participation (COP) proceeds was $9.5 million),” wrote Zink. The El Pomar Foundation also contributed $1.5 million, in addition to $500,000 from the Colorado Economic Commission. An additional $4.5 million community fundraising gift was also pledged as part of the agreement for Olympic Training Center improvements.

KRDO13 asked the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to respond to the Commission's calls for more financial transparency and the disparity of payment between USOPC executives and athletes.  Those questions were not directly answered.

A statement made by CEO Sarah Hirshland to NGBs, athletes, donors, partners, and staff was shared with KRDO13.  In part, Hirshland wrote, "We have worked tirelessly to increase athlete representation and center athlete safety, to increase transparency and accountability in our governance structures, and to increase awareness and support for the Paralympic movement."

KRDO13 searched records belonging to the Pikes Peak Regional Building and discovered that since 2009, hundreds of building permits were pulled for the Olympic Training Center property.  Many of those projects pertain to various electrical, mechanical, and plumbing fixes.

Several projects are labeled as "interior remodel" projects, but it's unclear from the online records how they benefit athletes and their training, specifically.

Read the full statement from Sarah Hirshland here:

“Earlier this morning, the official report from the Congressional Commission on the State of the U.S. Olympics and Paralympics went live. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to the Congressional Commission and Congress for their dedication and commitment to our Olympic and Paralympic community.     

As we delve into the Commission's recommendations, a significant aspect that was not acknowledged is the profound evolution that has taken place throughout the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Movement since the Commission’s inception. These past five years, as a community we have undergone a journey of transformation and growth. We have navigated through a sea of challenges and have risen from them stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed and unwavering commitment to our mission.

Our collective commitment to amplify the voices of athletes, prioritize their safety and well-being, and set the standard for exceptional sports administration has remained steadfast. We have worked tirelessly to increase athlete representation and center athlete safety, to increase transparency and accountability in our governance structures, and to increase awareness and support for the Paralympic movement.

In this journey, we have made significant strides. Athletes now constitute 50% of our board, many elected by their peers. We have put in place robust safety policies and have hired a dedicated Vice President of Athlete Safety to ensure the well-being of our athletes. We have also created an athlete services division to provide comprehensive support to our athletes, from mental health resources to career guidance.

We have increased transparency and accountability in our governance structures, providing annual reports to Congress, and auditing the National Governing Bodies of over 50 sports. Our efforts to increase awareness and support for the Paralympic movement culminated in adding it to the USOPC name in 2019.

We acknowledge that there is always room for improvement. We remain committed to being a constructive participant in making our organization and the Olympic and Paralympic movements stronger. As this discussion moves forward, our focus remains on providing certainty to athletes, fans, and donors that the United States is ready for a strong showing in Paris, a successful Summer Games in LA in 2028, and securing a Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2034.

We look forward to reviewing the Commission’s findings and recommendations and will continue to work tirelessly for the betterment of our organization, athletes, and the Olympic and Paralympic movements. Once again, I want to express my gratitude for your ongoing support and dedication to our mission. Together, I am confident that we will continue to make strides and shape a brighter future for the Olympic and Paralympic movements.”

Sarah Hirshland, USOPC CEO
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