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27 June 2011 - News

An Equal Footing - the Olympic Solidarity Programme

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Afghanistan's Rohullah (left) won his country's first Olympic Medal at the 2008 Games in Beijing ©IOC/Getty

Adam Szreter looks at the Olympic Solidarity Programme and how it enables athletes from around the world to compete on a level playing field

One of the most enduring and endearing qualities of the Olympic Games is the sight of athletes from many of the world’s less developed nations not only competing, but often winning, against those from more well-heeled backgrounds. The romantic notion is that total dedication and sheer talent is responsible for these tales of poverty to podium, but that is usually only half the story. What many outside the Olympic Movement are unaware of is the financial assistance given to such athletes through the Olympic Solidarity programme.


Now in its 40th year, Olympic Solidarity sprang from the Committee for International Olympic Aid, established in 1962 to assist newly independent countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. At first, with no financial resources at its disposal, the Committee offered little more than moral support to these fledgling National Olympic Committees (NOC). Today, Olympic Solidarity – as it became in 1971 – is responsible for a total budget of US$311 million for the 2009-2012 quadrennial plan which represents the NOC share of the TV revenue from the Olympic Games. This money is distributed to the NOCs in the form of programmes elaborated by the Olympic Solidarity Commission, chaired by Mario Vázquez Raña.

Three main pillars

The budget for 2009-2012 is divided into three main pillars: World Programmes, which focus on athletes, coaches, NOC management and the promotion of Olympic values – this accounts for 43 per cent of the total (US$134 million); Continental Programmes, devised according to local priorities with money distributed directly to each Continental Association – this amounts to 39 per cent (US$122 million); and Olympic Games Subsidies, which cover practical expenses before and during Games and reward NOCs for their contribution to the success of the Games – this comes to 14 per cent (US$42 million). The remaining four per cent is accounted for by the administration and communication costs of running the programmes.

Petra Majdic won a medal at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games - Copyright: IOC/Getty

Nearly half of the World Programmes budget is spent on projects that offer direct assistance to athletes, all with a view to qualifying for Olympic Games. These include Olympic Scholarships; Team Support Grants (giving financial assistance to one national team per NOC); Continental and Regional Games Athlete Preparation; and Youth Olympic Games Athlete Preparation. The Youth Olympic Games (YOG) programme, which provides US$10 million in the current quadrennial for the identification, qualification and preparation of a small number of young athletes, played a big part in the success of the inaugural Summer YOG last year in Singapore, and will play a similar role in the run-up to the 1st Winter YOG in Innsbruck in 2012.

The “identify-qualify-prepare” programme

A good example of how the YOG “identify-qualify-prepare” programme worked in practice was Kyrgyzstan, a country in Central Asia that had previously only won three Olympic medals. In May 2010 its NOC organised a special “spartakiad” event to identify young talent. Athletes in boxing, wrestling, judo and athletics were then sent to qualifying tournaments and four of them qualified for the YOG, preparing beforehand at the national training camp. Three of them went on to win medals including wrestler Urmatbek Amatov, who won gold.

Errol Kerr was Jamaica's sole representative at the vancouver 201 Olymic Games - Copyright: IOC/Getty

Perhaps the highest profile elements of Olympic Solidarity’s World Programmes are the Olympic Scholarships. Launched in 1992, they offer substantial assistance to elite international athletes nominated by their NOC, with particular emphasis on those of limited financial means. The programme includes access to top-class training facilities and coaches at home or abroad; medical assistance; board and lodging costs; and a fixed subsidy to enable athletes to compete in Olympic qualification events. In the period leading up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing a total of 1,088 scholarships were awarded, and 591 of those – from 151 NOCs – qualified for the Games in Beijing. Of those, 202 were women; 389 were men. 

Olympic Scholarship holders won 81 medals in Beijing

A total of 81 medals were won in Beijing by Olympic Scholarship holders compared with 57 in Athens four years earlier. Among them were Abhinav Bindra (10m air rifle), who was the first Indian to win an individual Olympic gold medal and used the scholarship to train for two years at the USA’s national training centre in Colorado Springs; and Afghanistan’s first Olympic medallist, Rohullah Nikpai, who won bronze in the men’s under-58kg taekwondo competition. Olympic Solidarity worked closely with Afghan taekwondo athletes prior to Beijing, placing them in a number of training camps across the world.

Vancouver 2010 was the first fully-fledged Olympic Winter Scholarship programme. While similar in content to the summer programme, its main objective was to improve the level of competition at the Winter Games, and not to artificially increase their universality given the specific conditions you need to practise many winter sports. Therefore the programme was offered only to NOCs with a strong tradition in winter sports. Nevertheless, scholarships were still offered to athletes ranging from potential medallists to those trying simply to represent their country. In all, 60 NOCs benefited from the programme, 12 of which eventually featured delegations in Vancouver composed entirely of Olympic Scholarship holders. A total of 227 out of 325 scholarship holders qualified, including 89 out of 132 women.


Jakov Fak of Croatioa won his country's first biathlon medal in Vancouver - Copyright: IOC/Getty

Enabling to prepare for the Games in a much better manner

There were 13 medallists among the Olympic Scholars in Vancouver and these included the Sics brothers from Latvia, Andris and Juris, who won silver in the luge doubles. One year earlier, Juris had told Olympic Review: “The Olympic Scholarship enables us to prepare for the Games in a much better manner, which is very important to us.” Andris had added: “Thanks to the Olympic Scholarship we can afford to feel more at home, even being far away from home.” And after their success in Vancouver, Andris said: “It’s perfect. You always want to be first but second place for small Latvia is wonderful. We trained hard and got in the top three.”

Other scholarship-medallists in Vancouver included Jakov Fak of Croatia who won his country’s first medal in biathlon; Petra Majdic, who took Slovenia’s first cross country medal; and Belarus biathlete Darya Domracheva, who became only the second woman to win an Olympic medal for her country since 1994. Outside the medals but of equal merit was Errol Kerr, Jamaica’s sole representative and its first Olympic skier. He carried his country’s flag during the parade of nations before finishing ninth in the ski cross, narrowly missing out on a diploma. The focus of attention for the Olympic Movement is now London 2012 and scholarship programmes are already under way. The overall figure allocated to London 2012 Olympic Scholarships is US$19 million, an increase on Beijing’s US$16 million.

Olympic Scholarships for Coaches

Among the 19 World Programmes administered by the Olympic Solidarity international office in Lausanne there are also Olympic Scholarships for Coaches, which offer access to high-level training and the chance to acquire additional experience and knowledge. US$26 million from the World Programmes budget will be spent on NOC Administration Development, programmes designed to contribute to general NOC running and also to improve specific aspects of their administration, particularly financial management. Other World Programmes include National Training Courses for Sports Administrators and International Executive Training Courses in Sports Management.

In addition, programmes dedicated to the promotion of Olympic values in fields such as sports medicine, woman and sport or sport and the environment, to name but a few, are also available to the NOCs.

The Sics brothers won a medalat the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver - Copyright: IOC/Getty

The Continental Programmes are run by the Olympic Solidarity office within each Continental Association, allowing them to address specific issues for sports development on their continent. The major part of each continent’s budget is spent on direct financial support to the NOCs for the implementation of their own activities and programmes that fit with their specific objectives. In Asia, for example, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) organises an Asian Games Fun Run, designed to spread the message of the Asian Games throughout Asia. 

The Oceania Sport Education Program (OSEP), a joint initiative between Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC) and various other partners, seeks to develop a regional approach to sport education in the field of coaching and administration. All over the Americas, Pan-American Sports Organisation (PASO) is making high-level international training centres available, with better supervision and state of the art facilities. In Europe, young athletes can take part in the European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF) thanks to the European Olympic Committees (EOC) and in Africa an increasing number of NOCs are now benefiting from the OlympAfrica project, partially financed by the Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa (ANOCA) through its continental budget.

"Activities to support the NOCs and benefit the athletes"

“Never before has Olympic Solidarity allocated so many resources and developed so many activities to support the NOCs and benefit the athletes,” says Vázquez Raña. “We are aware that Olympic Solidarity is today the fundamental support for the great majority of the NOCs and, in more than a few cases, the guarantee of their autonomy and independence.”

And long may it last. As the Olympic Charter states: “The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport in accordance with his or her needs.”
Olympic Solidarity is about making sure those rights can be exercised – everywhere.

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