Olympic Update: Making Change for Rio and Beyond

For over 8 years I was US #1 with a commanding lead, achieving much of the Olympic dream by becoming a United States Olympian and we did that together. But going into the 2012 trials I lost with a board broken in half by Malaysian Airways. There is no one to solace you for losing the trials. This year I was back on the national team and finished 4th at the trials for Rio, very satisfied because I work a full time job and really love what I do.

But there is another Olympic race far more difficult than becoming an Olympian. I’ve always that said what you do after achieving the dream is what the Olympics is is all about.

To me, that is to bring change to the way Olympic athletes are supported. I had great luck and success internationally, becoming the first athlete chairman elected to represent athletes on the board of directors of the World Sailing Federation. On my opening remarks in 2008, I asked everyone around me if they were there for the 5 star hotels, or for the betterment of the sport. The King, who is also on the board, had a drink with me afterwards and said thank you for the speech. But I never got involved to meet the president, the royal family, or billionaires. I was there with an agenda to improve athlete rights and support. We made great progress, from returning windsurfing back into the olympic program, to being featured in the 2014 Olympics as best practices by the IOC on athlete rights. I was tremendously proud, but not complete.

The hardest place to change, was back home in the United States.

Nearly 4 years ago, while sitting at a council meeting with the USOC Athletes Council, tired of seeing inaction in committee conversations, I performed an action under Robinson Rule. in the section: Other Business, I called to order 3 motions. To review and investigate the USOC financials, determine the ability to improve US Olympic athletes rights and the possibility of a league minimum for the USA’s best Olympic athletes. These motions passed unanimously.

In doing so, I gained unparalleled access into the US Olympic institution. The USOC executive sent me hundreds of pages of board minutes, presentations and financials. For nearly 6 months, I prepared the presentation of my lifetime, to be given at the General Assembly of the USOC occurring only once every 4 years. During the presentation the investigation was met with hours of debate, amongst the very heads of the US Olympic Committee. Imagine debating with the CEO of Xerox, the Chairman of EA Sports and the CEO of the USOC on how to better support the Olympic movement. But it came at a price, not many people liked what I said, but they respected what I said. It was a healthy debate built on data.

The resounding fact is just 6% of all USOC expenses goes to direct support of US Olympic athletes. I finally learned why I had to raise nearly a million dollars to compete against the worlds best, because someone else was spending the couple hundred million a year and it wasn’t the athletes.

But just as often happens in governance when confronted with change that could effect yourself, the issue was attempted to be tossed aside. However, there is something I learned while competing and being in high level positions. Don’t give up on the “No”, not if they have graduated from the #1 School in the world, or have a billion dollars to their name. Influence happens when you have people behind you.  That often means your onto something bigger than yourself.

Many other athletes flooded my inbox post presentation with encouragement and I found out quickly I wasn’t alone. I had many conversations over the last few years with Senators in the commerce committee, the final oversight of the USOC. They all agreed change was needed, but nothing is illegal about not having a long term strategy.

I knew that the next best chance for change was going into Rio, which starts next week. So I’m pushing more publicly this time. Our nations best athletes should not be in poverty, living off food stamps while executives get paid millions. It’s a not for profit, and it’s time for some public accountability.

So I’m thrilled to share a Sunday front page Washington Post story that used many of the key findings of my presentation. The title: “Olympic executives cash in on a ‘Movement’ that keeps athletes poor” by Will Hobson, a pulitzer prize winning columnist originally from the Tampa Bay Times.

<< Check out the article


I encourage you to share this story, your a leader in our community, and every dream has a price and every athlete in this nation deserves to be better served.

Thank you for your support over the years, we have made major impacts on hundreds of thousands of lives and I could not have served without you believing in me.

I look forward to seeing you again very soon.

Yours truly,

Ben Barger