The High Price-and Low Pay-of Olympic Greatness

Tuesday, July 31

ash-strapped parents may want to be less enthusiastic about encouraging kids to eat their Olympic-themed Wheaties in hopes of winning a gold medal.

While representing your country, standing on the podium and being declared the best in the world is an amazing and truly wonderful experience, in terms of money, the return rarely justifies the investment.

Truth is, most Olympic sports are very expensive to train for and the US government and the Olympic committee don’t exactly hand out a king’s ransom to winners. In fact, the U.S. Olympic Committee gets no continuous federal government subsidy.

That leads to pretty paltry payouts for big winners in the Olympics. According to published reports, American medalists only take home $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze. That’s great if you win eight golds- like swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008. But if not…


Apparently, most folks in the U.S. prefer that the government not shell out big bucks backing Olympians, so it’s unlikely this will change any time soon. But some countries do pay athletes pretty serious medal bonuses.

This year, Russia will pay $135,000 for a gold medal, $81,600 for silver and $54,400 for a bronze medal. Italy will pay gold medalists $182,400 and offers salaries of $64,000 to its 14 gold medal winners from the 2008 games through this summer’s Olympics.

Then again, Great Britain is offering a bonus of exactly $0 to medalists, so at least it’s not nothing.

The USOC has only a $170 million budget from donations and fundraisers that is spread across every single sport U.S. athletes participate in at the Olympics. That money goes to covering health insurance and stipends to only a limited number of competitors.

Most athletes have to cobble together an income made up of prize money, apparel deals, grants and part-time work.

According to a survey from the USA Track and Field Foundation, only 50 percent of American track and field athletes who are ranked in the top 10 in the nation in their event earn more than $15,000 a year in income from the sport. Those not in the top 10 didn’t even make that.

There’s also another big investment. Some Olympians say that the biggest loss is the income they don’t generate while training. Most have only part-time jobs, and few, if any, are able to advance their careers while training.

Forbes magazine recently published a piece about Olympians like Maya Lawrence, a 32-year-old Olympic fencer with a master’s degree from Columbia and a bachelor’s from Princeton, who spends about $20,000 a year on competition and training and has said she can’t keep a full-time job.

For parents, the cost of training often falls directly on them. “Families of child gymnasts seeking to develop a contender can cough up $1,000 a month in coaching and travel costs,” according to the piece.

Some parents attest to having paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” That’s how much Jan Peck, the mother of soccer player Heather Mitts said she spent. “Tournaments, hotel accommodations, private lessons, food, travel, sitters for siblings or pets – all those things cost money,” Peck said in an MSN article.

Gymnast Shawn Johnson's parents even took out a line of credit on their home and have used that money over the years to cover travel expenses.

Remember that when Junior says he wants to join the swimming team to be like Phelps.

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