Ask anyone walking down the street what the highest paid profession is, and you’ll no doubt hear professional athlete. It should stand to reason, then, that the highest level of professional athletics, the Olympic Games, would be the most lucrative events for these athletes. Surprisingly, winning an Olympic gold medal is frequently a losing monetary proposition!
Of course, nothing can take away the excitement and personal fulfillment of being the best in the world at something, but the payday has got to be a little bit of a letdown. Gold medalists get paid $25,000 by the US Government, while silver is worth $15,000 and bronze is worth $10,000. Of course, athletes are taxed on their winnings, and can expect to pay back about a third of their winnings there.
Some athletes do sell medals after the games, but, as one would expect, it’s a rare occurrence. Generally, athletes sell medals to donate the proceeds to charity or to fund start-up non-profit organizations. Anthony Ervin, who won Gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, sold his medal from the 50m freestyle to support victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami.
For many athletes, even the gold medal payout would still leave them running in the red. US Olympians have set up crowdfunding sites to help them defer expenses. One such star, decathlete Jeremy Taiwo, began with a budget of $15,000 to cover health care, equipment, and training costs. While Taiwo met his crowdfunding goal, many Olympians did not, and are forced to pay for their training out of pocket. This doesn’t include the cost of flights, lodging, and meals while representing the US in Rio. As training at an Olympic level is a commitment equivalent to a full time job, many athletes have trouble finding work that will accommodate the demands of a hectic training and competition schedule. Even a winning gold medal run wouldn’t provide enough money to cover the costs of training and the missed opportunity of a full time job.
The US Olympic Committee does provide scholarships through national sports organizations to defer some of these costs, but they are frequently reserved for proven athletes in high-visibility sports. Sports like swimming and track and field receive most of the funding, while sports like air rifle shooting, in which the US’s Virginia Thrasher took home the first gold of the games, receive very little.
Financial sacrifices are just one of the many ways in which athletes demonstrate the dedication they hold to their sport. Through their tireless efforts on and off the field, these heroes serve as an inspiration to all of us. They are living life in accordance with their values, prioritizing the sports they love over what most of us consider the core of a normal life.