The Summer Olympics are a huge business. The quadrennial games generate billions of dollars in revenue from broadcast rights, sponsorship deals and other sources, dwarfing the annual income of the NFL and other popular sports leagues. This year’s Rio games will bring in more than $4 billion in TV rights fees alone.
But as with college football and basketball, the stars of this lucrative show often struggle to pay their bills. Olympic athletes aren’t paid for their world-class performances. While some benefit from various forms of underwriting, most hold down jobs and live on the cheap as they follow their dreams of gold.
Corporate sponsorships are a significant source of funding for Olympians. But much of this support goes to marquee athletes who can generate positive publicity or endorse products for their sponsors. Swimwear maker Speedo, for example, paid swimmer Michael Phelps $1 million for his record-breaking seven-gold-medals performance at the 2012 summer games. Snowboarder Shaun White has scored more than $20 million in endorsement money while Skier Bodie Miller has made $8 million.
Companies sometimes underwrite entire teams – bobsled, track and field, et cetera – but that support doesn’t often include direct payments to athletes. One cool exception: Dicks’ Sporting Goods has a program in which it hires aspiring Olympians and allows them the scheduling flexibility to earn some money without interfering with their training. Home Depot had a similar program that fell victim to the rough economy in 2009.
Athletes in popular sports occasionally make a small amount of money directly from competition – prize money, stipends, appearance fees, et cetera. The top 10 U.S. track and field athletes made an average of just $15,000 per year from the sport, according to a 2012 study. Those outside the top 10, with the exception of a few sprinters, made little or nothing directly from competition.
U.S. Olympic Committee covers team members’ travel and other costs of attending the games. USOC also pays athletes a bonus for medaling — $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bringing home the bronze. Those rewards are relatively modest by world standards. Italy pays $189,000 for Olympic gold, Russia $113,000 and Switzerland $88,000. Malaysia offers the world’s highest bounty – a solid gold bar worth about $600,000. Alas, the country hasn’t won an Olympic event since 1956.
Like many young people with a dream, aspiring Olympians economize and hustle to meet their money needs. Athletes frequently live in group houses near their training sites. Others live with “host families,” who provide room and board in exchange for the chance to play a small part in possible Olympic glory.
Most Olympians work at least part time in jobs ranging from model (swimmer Amanda Beard) to teacher, construction worker — even accountant. Olympians in training have also been know to hold fundraisers for themselves, including happy hours and auctioning themselves off as celebrity dates.
For a very select few Olympians, all the discipline and sacrifice pays off huge in the form of a lucrative post-games career. Such rewards are usually reserved for gold medalists in high visibility sports – people like boxer Floyd Mayweather, decathlete Bruce Jenner and skater Dorothy Hamill.
But you don’t have to win gold to make lots of gold. Among the non-medalist Olympians who have gone on to greater fame and fortune was a British diver who competed in the 1988, 1992 and 1996 summer games.
That diver was Jason Statham, arguably today’s top action movie star.