Note: This article has been updated to reflect the facts that USAW matches money awarded to athletes who receive an Olympic medal; and that the organization pays for American and World records broken at the Youth, Junior, and Senior records.
When you think of the Olympics, what comes to mind first? Gold medals? Fame? Endorsements? Fortune?
We think talent and hard work is all it takes to be the best. Practice, practice, practice! Go through the national rankings and then the international rankings, and presto! Olympian!
Hard work, practice, and talent are certainly the building blocks for success, but getting to that level is expensive. Even a straightforward sport like weightlifting that requires very minimal equipment in comparison to other sports can become expensive when you factor in traveling costs, coaching, and entry fees.
Then, even if these athletes do win medals, most are just getting started in the real world. A few athletes, like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, will exit their competition career and be financially set for life thanks to endorsement deals, advertising, etc, but the majority of Olympians don’t have the same luxury. For these athletes, what does it truly cost to become an Olympian?
Travel and Coaching Costs
Three-time Olympian Kendrick Farris (‘08, ‘12, ‘16) quit his job so he could double up on training after falling short of the Olympics in 2004. With four to five weightlifting meets per year, each costing around $1000 per trip, his 12 year long career has in my estimate cost around $60,000 just in his own travel expenses.
We also need to factor in the additional cost of coaching. I am by no means Olympic level, but I gave it a run at the 2012 Olympic Trials, and I’ve competed on the international stage. When I first began competing 13 years ago, I paid my coach $150/ month for training. I later made an arrangement with him to trade my coaching costs in exchange for coaching the younger athletes. I’ve heard of similar situations with athletes exchanging training for cleaning the gym. However, this does not include the cost for your coach to travel to national competitions with you.
Whether you pay for your coach or the coach pays their own way, there is still a cost associated. Entry fees for national meets are $75 each. Two nights in a hotel could be between $250-300 and a flight out of Birmingham, AL (where I live) could be $400-600 (sometimes higher) depending on the destination. Add in the cost for 6-7 meals and then multiply it all by two (minus the entry fee). In my case, my husband coaches me so we share a room, but an average meet for the two of us costs approximately $2000…and that’s just for national meets. For international meets, the flight alone could be $2000.
Unlike other countries, American athletes don’t receive federal support. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) gives millions to each individual sport, but there are 39 sports and each individual sport has many needs. During my short time as a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs in 2013, I received a stipend of $250 a month and all of my meals were covered in the cafeteria. I was an off-campus resident, so my housing was not covered. To avoid commuting and paying rent off campus, I chose to stay in the resident dorms, but the additional cost was covered by my family.
The stipend amounts have since changed, and highly ranked international athletes get additional benefits. Additionally, with the recent extinction of the resident program, USAW has implemented a new way to distribute funds to athletes during the 2017-2020 quad based on medal potential and incentive payment programs. I believe this method will greatly benefit athletes that were not involved in the resident program by more equally distributing the funds to those trained by individual coaches.
Medal potential is described as the ability to medal at the World Championships/Olympics in a “relatively near-term basis” based on the 2015 NCS five-year World Championships/Olympic Games third place average per body weight category. The system is a little complicated to follow, but basically USAW averages the results over five years from the World Championships and the Olympics from each body weight category and ranks them from 1-25. They designate 95% of the third place total as “medal potential,” and reward athletes whose numbers hit that medal potential with $3,000/month. For example, Sarah Robles totaled 286kg at the Olympic Games, therefore the upcoming pay period she would be paid $3,000/month for having a total over the required 275.5kg. USAW’s full medal potential breakdown can be found here.
Incentive payment programs are based on the same FIVE year average of places 1-25, and reward senior athletes who are anticipated to podium at the World Championships. Athletes receive $200/month for 25th place up to $3,200/month for an athlete whose total would win the World Championships.
For example, let’s take another look at Robles and Farris. Kendrick’s total from the Pan American Games was 364kg. This total is not 95% of the third place average for the 94kg weight class, so the incentive payment program would pay him based off of his ranking. A 364kg total gives him a projected ranking of 15, giving him a stipend of $1,450/month. Meanwhile, a 286kg total for Sarah projects her at 5th, giving her $2,700.
Athletes are only allowed to be paid from one method, so Sarah would most likely chose method one giving her a higher stipend. A chart of the totals can be seen below and the full USAW breakdown can be found here. Also, these charts will be updated January 1st to account for any positive drug tests that will alter these placement totals.
Most athletes won’t have the totals to place them where Sarah is placed, and junior/youth athletes aren’t paid stipends even close to this amount. So where does the money for these athletes come from?
Most likely, it comes from mom and dad.
Given the age of the athletes when they begin training and the years it takes to develop to the Olympic level, most of the financial weight falls on the shoulders of the parents. American gymnast and 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist Shannon Miller said, “None of the [Olympic sports] come cheap when you begin to add up the equipment, coaching, travel and other expenses for the amount of training needed.” She added, “The Olympics are not something you do to get rich. You do it so that you can represent your country performing in a sport you love.”
In addition to mom and dad’s dollar, today’s athletes are turning to social media to raise money for training expenses. Bill Kerig, CEO and founder of RallyMe.com, a concept similar to GoFundMe, says nearly 30 Olympians from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia collectively raised over $600,000 through RallyMe.com. Kerig believes this fundraising is possible because “Americans want to be part of their athletes’ success.”
Of course, we think that the athletes who win medals will be set for the foreseeable future…right? Wrong.
The United States Olympic Committee awards cash prizes of $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze. Just like a game show or the lottery, the winnings on Olympic medals are taxed. Athletes end up paying taxes up to $9,900, $5,940, and $3,960, respectively, for that hard earned hardware. Robles snatched up the bronze and the sports first medal of any color for United States weightlifting since 2000, and although I’m sure she is undoubtedly thrilled for receive $10K in prize money, it hardly makes a dent in her lifetime training expenses. USA Weightlifting’s payment model matches the money received from winning a medal, so that $10,000 will now be doubled.
Additionally, USA Weightlifting has added extra incentive for athletes to break American and world records. Athletes will be paid $1000 per World Youth Record, $2000 per World Junior Record, and $5000 per Senior World Record. Payments are made on the final record, capped at $15,000 per meet, and are to be made for both the individual lift and in the total. CJ Cummings, for example, would be paid from his Youth World Record performance at the Junior World Championships based off of his 180kg clean and jerk since he broke the record twice in the same competition. Jenny Arthur and Morghan King will both be awarded after their American Record snatches from the Rio Olympics with a $250 base and a bonus of 50% for completing them in the Olympic Games. The base amount can increase based upon the percentage of the world record broken and for breaking American records by multiple kilos over the current standard.
(Note that in 2012, Florida Republican Senator, Marco Rubio introduced the Olympic Tax Elimination Act to end all taxes on medal earnings. Although it never became a law, Republican Senator, John Thune’s has proposed a similar topic and his efforts passed the Senate earlier this year.)
Even the in the most popular Olympic sports, athletes still struggle. Track and field is a headline during the summer Olympiads, and reports confirm that these athletes still suffer financially. A survey produced in 2012 by the U.S. Track and Field Athletes Association that stated that approximately 50% of U.S. track and field athletes who rank in the top 10 in the Unites States in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport sponsorships, grants, and prize money. Only 20% of the top 10 athletes make more than $50,000 annually, and up and coming athletes with rankings outside the top 10 (other than a few sprinters and milers) face very limited income.
The biggest hit in finances, though, is in lost wages while careers go on hold for years. Remember, it’s most U.S. Olympians full time job is to train for the Olympics, so they aren’t making a true wage until late 20s or early 30s. Additionally, many of these athletes haven’t finished, or in some cases, even started college, making it difficult to qualify themselves for a career other than coaching (if they are lucky enough to posses the ability and knowledge to coach, that is.)
The bottom line is that most athletes don’t compete in Olympic sports for the money. The payout comes not in money, but in the form of reaching their dream and hearing their national anthem from atop the podium. For most, the short term financial boost is unlikely to ever be equivalent to the amount spent to get them there. The prize comes from knowing they represented their country at the highest possible level of international competition, bringing pride to themselves, their family, and their country.
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Featured Image: Jenny Arthur (@jenny.arthur)