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Olympic groups squandering millions while athletes struggle to get to Rio

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Dozens of athletes from Canada and thousands from developing countries have had a difficult time raising the money needed to train and take part in the Olympics Games in Brazil.

In Canada, more than two dozen world-class athletes were so hard up for support that they resorted to launching crowdfunding campaigns to supplement the money they receive from government and perhaps corporate sponsors.

On the tiny Pacific Island country of Nauru, judo participant Judoka Uera had to hold barbecues and knock on doors to get the funds he needed. Getting to Rio fulfilled Uera's lifelong dream, but hundreds of other athletes who had the same dream and could have qualified for Rio were unable to attend because of a lack of support.  

Given the financial difficulties faced by athletes, you would think the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would provide every dime possible to sports bodies to provide funding.

Not so.

In fact, both the COC and the IOC are guilty of greedily spending millions of dollars on themselves while struggling athletes scrambled for a few bucks to get to Rio.

COC spends $10 million-plus on office

The Canadian Olympics Committee's main task is supposed to be fostering Canadian participation in the Olympics. So it's a bit of a shock that it is spending $10 million on a new office -- Olympic House -- in Montreal. Included in the grandiose facility is a $2.9 million board room, called the "Lausanne Room" -- a tribute to the international masters which have their headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on a spectacular outside lighting system for the office. To top it off, the Committee spent more than $1 million on a launch party for its new headquarters.

According to an audit, the project is facing a cost overrun, likely more than $1 million. The COC has not so far been able to collect $1.5 million it had counted on to help pay for Olympic House.

In fairness, the $10 million to be raised was specifically for the one-time project. But a more modest but adequate facility could have been built for much less.

The COC could have focused more on getting funds to athletes.

In the COC's most recent but sketchy financial report filed with the Canada Revenue Agency for 2014, figures show that it passed on $5.2 million to the various sports bodies -- less than one-half the amount spent on the office.

Incidentally, the COC refused to say how many of its 19 Board members and staff are attending the Games in Rio.

The COC is also having difficulty recovering from a horrendous sexual harassment situation. Recently resigned President Marcel Aubut made unwanted sexual advances toward many staff members over a period of five years. Senior staff members who knew about the situation were fired.

Problems linger and it's too soon to tell whether the COC will be able to adequately do its job of supporting athletes and the Olympics.

IOC looks after its own

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) clearly spends much more money on itself than is reasonable. Its priority is supposed to be distributing as much of its estimated $1.375 billion USD to sports groups around the world.

The IOC is a volunteer organization but, as The Washington Post reported in July, it has created ways of greasing the palms of its executives and members.

IOC President Thomas Bach, a former German fencer, is called a "volunteer." However, he receives an annual "allowance" of US$251,000 plus other perks. The IOC pays for his suite at a luxurious hotel in Lausanne that is listed at more than US$1,000 per night.

When on IOC business, members are allowed to fly first class, stay in luxury hotels, and get large per diems: US$450 per day for regular IOC members, and US$900 per day for IOC executive members.

Representing Canada on the IOC, and therefore entitled to the expenses, are Richard Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency; former hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser; and new COC President Tricia Smith.

Hundreds of so-called IOC volunteers at the Olympics are handsomely rewarded. Bob Balk, a former U.S. Paralympic canoe athlete volunteered at the 2012 Games in London. Every morning a crowd of IOC members and volunteers gathered in a hotel room to get their daily stipend, he told The Washington Post.

"They had a US $100 bill counting machine, and people were standing in line to get their stacks of hundred dollar bills," Balk said. "It was crazy."

IOC answers to no one

The IOC is able to get away with such extravagances because it answers to no one except itself.

Every year the IOC claims that 90 per cent of its income is sent to sports organizations around the world. But because it is a non-profit based in tax haven Switzerland, it is not required to disclose how it spends its money. 

A lot of money goes to non-profit sports organizations in many countries where they too are not required to account for their spending.

Just like the IOC, international sports bodies concerning track and field, swimming and gymnastics are located in Switzerland or Monaco, another tax haven.

Obviously, a culture of absurd entitlement exists throughout much of the Olympic movement, and the question arises: How many millions of dollars are not being used in the right way to support the Olympics?

Because so much financial information is hidden, it is difficult to tell how much money might be poorly allocated in Canada, and whether there is corruption and theft on an international level. Clearly, as both organizations need to maintain the confidence of donors and the public, they should voluntarily undergo independent audits.

When such scandals erupt, the athletes know that, even though they are the stars adored by millions, they are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to money. At the top are the big international advertisers who fund the Olympics because they want access to those millions of eyeballs. Next come the wheeling and dealing middle men Olympic officials who get their piece of the pie. Last are the athletes. The athletes would be wise to organize and demand full disclosure from all Olympic bodies.

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to rabble.ca. Now that he's no longer a part of mainstream media, he writes about whatever he damn well pleases! There's lots of interesting stuff on his blog: nickfillmore.blogspot.com

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