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Olympic Athletes Are Poor

  • Matt Rudnitsky

You know who isn’t to blame for America’s economic ails? Athletes. No, they’re NOT the overpaid ungrateful bastards that so many seem to think they are. Well, not athletes of the Olympic variety, at least.

Yes, the ones you watch every two years, marveling at their otherworldly talent and dedication that was just enough to beat out the millions upon millions fighting for their place. Oh, how I wish I could be there, you think. They’re so LUCKY. I wish I had all that fame, WEALTH and glory. I wish I were on TV.


Nobody is giving these AMERICAN HEROES any financial help. American Olympians, “unlike athletes in many other countries, receive no direct support from the federal government.” So, no, your taxes are not going to the Michael Phelps New-Bong Fund.

But seriously, lots of Olympic athletes are, like, really poor.

The U.S. Olympic Committee, with a $170 million annual operating budget spread across all sports, offers health insurance and stipends to only a limited number of competitors.

Athletes, without government support, are instead forced to cobble together an income made up of prize money, apparel contracts, grants and part-time work.

Take that, critics of government spending! We’re veritable penny-pinchers! Even world-class athletes are living check-to-check! They don’t get shit handed to them, just like it should be! Free markets! Adam Smith! America! For example, meet Scott Parsons, a 33-year old dude who will kayak at the London Olympics, his third trip to the Games. His life sounds pretty sweet, right? This bro can out-kayak 99.999999999% of the world. You think you wanna be him?

Well, probably not. As good as he may be, remember: he’s a kayaker. Despite being an elite athlete in his sport, needing to follow a training schedule that would make your average America wet his Fruit Of The Looms, Parsons has worked multiple part time jobs, and “estimates that he has lived in five different basement apartments over the past ten years.” I’ll be lucky to progress into the 1,000th-best sportswriter in the world, and even I’m not too worried about biennial basement-hopping. Studio apartments in the slums will always be in my price range!

The USA Track and Field Foundation recently conducted a survey to find out how well their athletes do financially, since figures aren’t readily available. Track and field is one of the most visible sports at the Games, but you’ll be surprised to learn that even if you’re one of the fastest people in the country, you’re probably better off washing cars.

– Approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.).

– Approximately 20% of our athletes in the top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.

– Athletes outside of a top 10 USA ranking, other than some sprinters, milers, and distance runners, can expect to face very limited (if any) income support.

To sum up: on average, for each event, only five of the top 10 American athletes make more than $15,000 per year. And if you’re anywhere outside of the top 10? You’re lucky to afford quality spikes, which are essential to your profession. For comparison’s sake: the average fast-food cook makes over $31,000 per year (including benefits). The 11th-best long-jumper in the entire United States might not be able to afford a couple of that cook’s finest Big Macs per day.

And even if you are one of the few lucky ones to get a shoe contract and actually make some guap? Don’t get too comfy, Mr. Hot-Shot Shoe-Deal. A couple more losses and you’re back to your old, poor self:

There is very little income security aside from top end performances year in and year out. It is not unusual for both Olympic and World Champ finalists in key events to not get re-signed by their company the following year. It is definitely a futures market as everyone pays early on potential, but not on experience. Often a strong new post-collegiate athlete’s first contract is the best one they’ll get unless they go beyond the expectations of that shoe company.

Want to be an Olympic race-walker? You make nothing, even if you’re the best in the world (although you’re probably asking for it with those aspirations). Want to be a sprinter with health insurance? You’ll need to consistently be top 10 in the world. If you’re middling in that 10-25 range, again, in the world, you’ll typically need part-time work. Outside the top 25? You’ll definitely need part-time work, and don’t expect a sponsorship.

Check out how sprinters have it, and realize, they have it better than any other track and field athletes (except possibly distance runners/marathoners).

But, no, they’re not all poor. Success can make you some bank.

Olympic glory itself can boost athletes’ income. Americans who win gold medals in London will receive a $25,000 bonus, while silver medals will bring $15,000 and bronze medal winners will net $10,000.

So don’t go sending your lunch money to Kobe Bryant just yet. But if an athlete misses out on the Olympics? Maybe you should pass up on the fries to send your fellow citizen some change. Check out the case of Ben Bruce, a steeplechaser who narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics by coming in fifth, instead of third, at the Trials.

The loss puts him in the unfortunate position of being one of the sport’s best athletes to not make the team.

“There are a lot of us that are technically living under the poverty line,” Bruce said, referring to a period between 2008 and 2010 when he had no sponsors. “In this sport, nobody is looking to give you a free ride.”

“When I would file taxes at the end of the year, I was not making more than $10,000.”

Yet Bruce isn’t ready to hang up his spikes. After several tough years when he worked delivering pizzas and cleaning houses, he has picked up an Adidas sponsorship, and is now working with a training group that helps to defray the cost of competing.

“Hey, Mr. Pizza Delivery Man, where’d you get those sweet Adidas kicks?” Well, um, I used to be sponsored by Adidas. But I came in fifth place instead of third at some race, so now I deliver pizzas! Enjoy!

So, yeah, Olympic athletes have it rougher than you’d think. Sure, they can make money. But if they aren’t basically the best in the world, they might be poor. And even if they are, if they stop winning, they stop earning. There are no Bobby Bonilla situations to see here.

The difference between the best and 20th-best accountants in the world isn’t too steep. Nor is the difference between the best and 20th-best basketball players. But sprinters? If you’re a few tenths of a second or so slower than Usain Bolt, you better ask McDonald’s if they like their fry-cooks toned and in perfect physical condition.

But hey, at least they all get free condoms.