100 Days Until London: U.S. Olympic Team Stitches Together Fundraising Effort

Unlike most countries, the U.S. does not offer direct government support to athletes. A new initiative tries to close the funding gap

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Jared T. Miller

Olympic Rhythmic Gymnast Julie Zetlin signs autographs during a "Raise Our Flag" event in Manhattan's Times Square on April 18, 2012 in New York.

America wants its gold medals. We just don’t want to pay for them.

Contrary to the beliefs of many, the USA is one of the few countries that does not provide direct government support to its Olympic athletes. So while countries like China can engineer a medal-drive through government investment, the U.S. relies on revenues from television contracts, corporate sponsorships, and individual donations to field a competitive team. This structure isn’t going to change any time soon. With unemployment still high, and public budgets crunched all across the country, no politician is going to vote for dedicating tax dollars to taekwondo and table tennis. This is a bad time to be lobbying for sports cash.

Not that the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is struggling. When the world economy tanked right after the 2008 Olympics, the USOC reduced the prices for its corporate sponsorship packages, which enabled it to keep some existing partners, and add new ones. Anheuser-Busch, for example, reportedly paid $20 million for its USOC sponsorship between 2005 and 2008; for the 2009-2012 quadrennial, the company renewed the deal for closer to $10 million. BMW signed a six-year, $20 million deal in 2010. Sponsorship revenues are higher than those from the last Olympic cycle: donations are up 49%. “We’re comfortable with where we are,” Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC, told TIME in a February interview.

(MORE: Keeping Afloat – How US Olympians Struggle to Raise Money)

Still, many smaller sports continue to struggle. In a recent TIME story, for example, we detailed how the U.S. synchronized swimming team has to make post-midnight party appearances, after a day of grueling training, to pick up some spare cash. So today, with the London Olympics now just 100 days away, the USOC has announced a new fundraising campaign, called “Raise Our Flag.” For $12 on the Team USA website, individuals can contribute a stitch toward an American flag that the team will carry in the London opening ceremonies, on July 27. Within a few hours of the announcement, donors had purchased nearly 1,000 stitches, according to the Team USA site.

Will this effort pay off? After a wave of attention, the “Raise Our Flag” momentum might indeed slow down. Americans are not necessarily in a mood to part with cash, no matter how worthy the cause. But if a $12 donation helps a struggling Olympian get by, “Raise Our Flag” is indeed worth it.

(MORE: London 2012: Seven Unique Venues For the Olympic Games)