Do Olympians Get Paid To Train?
The Olympics are the absolute pinnacle of athletic achievement for most sports. Sure, NFL players want a Super Bowl and don’t play in the Olympics, but pretty much any other sport: this is it. Being able to call yourself “an Olympian.” Having your name etched forever into the annals of history with your medal is something you can cherish forever, and is often-times the peak of that person’s career, despite it usually coming at quite a young age.
So today, I'm going to dive into what it takes to become an Olympian and look at the cost of training, competing, getting to the Olympic Games themselves, and what these incredible athletes actually get paid. Let’s go!
Being An Olympic Hopeful
Depending on the sport, dreaming of being an Olympian often starts quite young. According to the Washington Post, about two-thirds of the 11,700 athletes competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are in their 20’s, but there are several 60-somethings in the mix, as well as more than a handful of teenagers.
An American 17 year old won the gold medal in swimming, and a 13 year old former Vine phenom competed in the inaugural Olympic skateboarding competition, so it definitely depends on the sport you’re competing in. But this young average age of an athlete means that, generally, they are dependent on their parents to cover the costs of training.
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This is where you typically hear the term “sacrifice” from someone like Mike Tirico on the NBC coverage when they do the human interest highlight package. “My parents sacrificed so much” and “really this is all due to their sacrifice.” And that’s true! Take, for example, rising star of the gymnastics world Konnor McClain, one of the stars of the Peacock documentary “Golden” which details the process of composing the U.S Olympic Gymnastics team.
Konnor’s family uprooted their lives, and the promising baseball career of her younger brother, in order to find an “elite” level coach for Konnor to train under to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. They moved from Arkansas to Texas and lived out of a hotel in order to find the next great coach for their daughter. So the sacrifices these parents make aren’t easy.
In that same documentary, 2020 Olympian MyKayla Skinner’s mother illustrated how the financial burden of training an elite athlete takes a toll on the whole family by describing how she had to take a part-time job at MyKayla’s gym in order to help cover the costs of coaching, and that didn’t even cover the physical therapy costs associated with a high-impact sport such as gymnastics. And the Skinner family seems like the rule, rather than the exception.
Do Olympic Athletes Get Paid To Train?
Short answer: absolutely not. In 2012, Forbes assembled a study of various athletes from different Olympic sports to highlight the cost, and potential cost differences, of training and getting to the Olympics. What they found was actually pretty stunning.
In the process leading up to the 2012 Games, the average competitor in Archery spent about $25,000 per year in various expenses (equipment, coaching, travel, competition fees, etc) and required around four years of fully-funded intensive training. Table Tennis clocked in at about $20,000 a year for training that takes between eight to twelve years. One Sprint Kayak athlete training for Tokyo 2020 stated that she has spent more than $38,000 per year on her expenses in training. For Gymnastics? They found the costs associated to be close to $15,000 a year, with fees associated with the sport attributed to driving Olympian Gabby Douglas’s mom into bankruptcy. But how can one of the biggest sports in the world cost less to train for than Archery or Sprint Kayaking?
Olympics Sponsorship – A Dirty Word
The U.S Women’s Gymnastics Team is one of the most famous and popular groups of Olympic athletes the world has ever seen. Simone Biles, widely considered the greatest gymnast of all time, is the poster child for the United States Olympic team as a whole, not just for gymnastics. So you would think that training for such a high-profile sport that is so body-intensive would require more out of pocket costs, right? Technically, yes, but also no. The reason why is sponsorships.
Think about how a “typical” athlete makes money. You have your salary from your team or organization. Then you probably have some sponsorships to drive revenue off the court or field. You may also have some business interests or other avenues for revenue. Olympic athletes don’t usually have the same luxury for two reasons:
1. No interest in the sport they compete in
2. Rule 40
Low Sponsorship Interest
Let’s tackle the first one, well, first. Many Olympic sports, while unbelievably impressive in their feats of strength and agility, are just not that interesting to the average viewer. That’s why you don’t typically see the gold medalist in the Marathon or the three-time Table Tennis champion in a commercial, but you see Simone Biles in a Visa ad or even former Olympian Laurie Hernandez in a pharmaceutical commercial.
Companies want to spend their advertising dollars on things that drive revenue, and seeing an Olympian that is known the world over is one of the best ways to do that. Hence the sponsorship deals that help offset the cost of being one of the best in the world.
The Olympic Games Rule 40
The next reason is much more complex, and that is the Olympic charter by-law referred to as “Rule 40.” Rule 40 states that only approved sponsors may reference Olympic-related terms in order to prevent quick marketing hits by companies with existing sponsorship deals with athletes participating in the Games.
Effectively, it’s a top-down sponsorship approach that starts at the International Olympic Committee level and trickles down to the athletes. Let’s take Toyota as an example at this year’s Games. Toyota is a main sponsor of the Olympic and has a marketing contract with the IOC. In turn, they can reference the Olympic and Paralympic logos in their advertisements throughout the Games.
However, if an athlete has a contract with a competing company like Kia or Ford, those companies were previously not allowed to reference anything having to do with the Olympics, including the performance of the athlete they are in a contract with, potentially cutting into deals that current Olympians can make with outside sponsors in order to offset the cost of actually being an Olympian. It’s explained really well by Tokyo 2020 athlete Matisse Thybulle, who plays on the Australian Olympic basketball team but makes his living with the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers:
These rules have been relaxed somewhat in the last few years, but it still cuts some athletes off at the knees in terms of their money-making ability while actively competing at the Olympics.
Making A Living As An Olympian
You might be asking yourself at this point “why does this matter when these are pro athletes making a ton of money anyway?” Great question! And you’re super wrong. While the big names like Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles might be rolling in dough, they aren't typical. These elite athletes that gain fame and attention around the world actually make very little, depending on which country you represent.
It’s important to note that these athletes do not take a salary for competing in the actual Olympics themselves. It’s not like the NFL where you have a “Super Bowl Bonus” written into your contract, and that’s because most of these athletes don’t have contracts. They work day jobs and train in their off time. If they do compete professionally, the paychecks tend to be pretty awful. Track and Field athletes make an average of less than $15,000 per year! The National Olympic Committee’s from each nation cover the athlete’s travel to and from the Games, room and board in the Olympic Village, and that’s it. These people don’t earn unless they win a medal, and even that varies dramatically depending on which country you represent.
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Which Country Pays The Most Per Olympic Medal?
Interestingly, Singapore! You’d think that competing for the United States brings about peak earning power when you win a medal. And for that, you’d also be wrong. Globally, the U.S actually ranks 8th in medal payouts, doling out $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for a silver and $15,000 for a bronze. That pales in comparison to Singapore in the first place slot who pays: $744,000 for a gold medal, $372,000 for a silver and $286,000 for a bronze.
Being An Olympian Is Brutal
As you can see, becoming an Olympian is brutally difficult for a myriad of reasons. Not only do you have to be the one-percent of the one-percent in terms of athletic ability, but you have to have the drive and the work ethic to hone your craft. You also have to be able to stomach the pain of defeat, and potentially the pain of crushing bills and an incredible financial burden. And when you do reach the pinnacle of your sport? Here’s $37,500, hope that’s enough! With the financial instability that many Olympians experience, coupled with recent seismic shifts in collegiate and amateur sports rules around endorsements, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sea-change coming in everyone’s favorite four year event.