The Truth About How Most Olympic Athletes Make Money

For many Olympic hopefuls, the financial cost of becoming the best at one's sport initially outweighs the returns—and sometimes the reward is still mostly just glory.

By Natalie Finn Aug 09, 2021 10:00 AMTags
Tokyo Olympians, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, Beth Shriever, ROC GymnastsGetty Images; Shutterstock; AP

Simone Biles did lose a shot at six figures by pulling out of most of her event finals at the Tokyo Olympics.

If she had swept all six with gold medals, she could have earned $196,875: $37,500 per individual gold (x5), plus $9,375 for her 25 percent share of a team gold from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (which has increased all medal payouts by 50 percent since Rio). Instead, she left with $5,625 (her cut of a $22,500 silver), plus a $15,000 bronze for her performance on the balance beam.

Which to her felt perfectly golden after her tumultuous week leading up to that last event on the women's gymnastics schedule.

Really, not a bad haul—most of the 11,090 athletes who competed at the delayed 2020 Games left with nothing but memories, after all—but Biles, whose sponsors include Athleta, Visa and Nabisco, knows that she's one of the lucky ones whose financial future was looking rosy no matter what happened in Tokyo.

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The 24-year-old had earned an estimated $2 million in prize money and endorsements before she even made her Olympic debut in Rio in 2016, where her four gold medals and one bronze tied her with swimmer Katie Ledecky as the most decorated women of the Games. They were second only to their U.S. teammate Michael Phelps, who ended his triumphant career with six more Olympic medals, five of them gold, to become the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals.

Phelps retired (for the second time) after Rio and offered his expertise to NBC Sports in Tokyo. Biles said she's "keeping the door open" as far as competing in the 2024 Paris Olympics goes, and Ledecky barely gives herself time to dry off before she dives back into training.

But they're all squarely in the black when it comes to being handsomely compensated for their athletic prowess—which, when you become one of the chosen super-stars of an event like the Olympics, translates into more opportunities out of the pool and off the court, field, track, mat, board, etc.

AP Photo/Lee Jin-ma

However, most of those who reach even their sport's most elite levels don't rake in millions, or even earn their entire living from being an athlete in some cases. Nor will they ever, though international success can certainly help advance their careers in related fields, from coaching and broadcasting to writing and motivational speaking.

Those who are able to devote their lives to training usually can do so thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of sponsors and donors—or, in some countries, the government.

It can cost thousands of dollars just to train at that elite level, hence why athletes tend to jump at the opportunity to live full-time at a residential training center, many of which help cover coaching costs, competition entry fees, the price of gear and other necessities. Unlike similar bodies in other nations, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) does not receive funding from the federal government, noting on its website that that it "relies on private resources" and "would not be able to manage such costs without Americans like you."

Jaw-Dropping Photos from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Luckily, Americans like you—and corporations—have been quite generous, and Team USA sponsors currently include United Airlines, Toyota, Visa, Airbnb, Nike and Samsung.

Meanwhile, there are countries that reward athletes substantially more for medals, such as Singapore ($740,000 for gold, but they've only had to pay any gold-level bonus once, to Rio 100m butterfly winner Joseph Schooling), the Philippines ($200,000 for gold, but weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, who just won her country's first-ever gold, is reportedly going to get way more in donations, national treasure that she is), Russia (a lifelong government pension for medaling, despite the country itself being technically banned from the Olympics for systemic doping violations) and Estonia (a $5,500 lifetime annual stipend for gold medalists, plus more in retirement—Well done, women's fencing team, their win in team épée the nation's only gold in Tokyo).

And many that offer no cash for medals at all.

Andrew Medichini/AP/Shutterstock

In 2016, Congress passed legislation making the medal payments from the USOPC tax-free for athletes whose gross income for the year is less than $1 million.

Which is most of them.

2020 Tokyo Olympics Candid Photos

Even some of the most dominant Olympic champions have opted to remain so-called amateurs in order to compete for an NCAA team, which requires them to forgo personal endorsement deals (though that could be something that changes in the near future, considering the recent Supreme Court decision paving the way for college athletes to profit from their name and likeness).

On their end, two-time Olympic high jumper Vashti Cunningham signed a deal with Nike ("very lucrative," her coach and dad, retired NFL player Randall Cunningham, called it) when she was 18 in 2016, forgoing college eligibility, as did Biles, who at one point planned to attend UCLA but opted to turn professional before Rio.

Going another route, Ledecky swam for Stanford for two years after she was already a five-time Olympic gold medalist (she won her first at 15, so mom and dad still provided room and board), and didn't give up her NCAA eligibility until 2018, signing a deal with swimwear company TYR worth a reported $7 million. Caeleb Dressel, the unmitigated male swimming superstar of Tokyo, also returned to college at University of Florida after winning two relay golds in Rio and didn't turn pro until after graduation, when Speedo snatched him up in 2018.


Missy Franklin, who won four golds in London in 2012, also famously put off turning pro after her first Olympics to swim for California, and "Final Five" champions Madison Kocian and Kyla Ross enrolled at UCLA after their team gold triumph in Rio, helping the Bruins win a national championship in 2018. Sprinter Gabby Thomas, who earned silver with the 4x100 relay team and an individual bronze in the 200 meters in her Olympics debut in Tokyo, established herself as one of Harvard's best-ever runners before turning pro her senior year, signing with New Balance.

But even when they were giving up endorsement potential, the college kids benefited from athletic scholarships. And sport governing bodies, such as USA Track & Field, USA Swimming and even the embattled USA Gymnastics have deep-pocketed sponsors to get their talent to the Games.

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Unlike British BMX rider Beth Shriever, whose funding was cut after Rio when UK Sport decided to only fund male riders. British Cycling, the sport's governing body, picked up some of the slack, offering extra financial support to the all-of-a-sudden-cut-off women, but there was only so much and Shriever left the organization in 2017 after winning her first junior world championship to get a job and train on her own.

"It's finding money for the travel and races that's difficult and it's been a little bit stressful," Shriever, who turned to her parents for financial help and became a part-time teacher's aide for preschool-age children to supplement her income, explained to BBC Sport in 2018. "The school, which is also where my mum works, are absolutely great about giving me time off to compete. They've been massively supportive and I love it." (She said she still had a "great relationship" with British Cycling. Her coach, Mark Seaman, was said to earn a living traveling around Britain giving masterclasses.)

But after estimating it would cost $70,000 to finance her pivotal qualifying season and get to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she started crowdfunding a few years ago.

And while it admittedly weighed on her, "wondering where the money is going to come from," she raised enough—and won a gold medal in the women's BMX final. (Which you'd think would be a wakeup call for UK Sport, which, according to the Independent, doles out upward of $173 million in government and lottery funds to support Olympic and Paralympic teams but do not reward medals with cash bonuses.)

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With GoFundMe pages starting to gain steam among athletes ahead of Rio, inevitably more turned to the kindness of strangers for Tokyo, including America's No. 1 badminton player Zhang Beiwen, who no matter how good she got could only count on four-figure prize money even at the most prestigious tournaments.

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports, live events, training facilities and more in 2020, a large source of her income dried up and she set a fundraising goal of $12,000 to pay for overseas training, travel to four #RoadtoTokyo2021 tournaments and then the main event itself. Beiwen ultimately raised more than $15,000 and competed in Tokyo, but suffered an Achilles injury that put her medal dreams on hold.

And the equestrian events don't just appear to scream "FANCY!," with literal royalty competing in them in past years and The Boss' daughter Jessica Springsteen earning silver in the team jumping finals in Tokyo. It truly is the most expensive sport to train for featured at the Olympics (costs a bit more to stable a horse than it does to store skis) so it can take extra financial support to make it to the Games for average-income people.

Friso Gentsch/picture alliance via Getty Images

Olympic organizers pay to fly the animals in from all over the world, but every other horse-related expense is up to the two-legged competitors.

"Our sports federation and our equestrian federation can't afford to give too much to the sport like some of the other federations do, so of course it's a huge expense for us personally to get here," South African eventing rider Victoria Scott-Legendre told NBC Olympics.

Even after paring her team down to her horse, Valtho des Peupliers; one coach; one groom and no vet, "we were really, really stressed about it and someone proposed to us to do a GoFundMe," the 32-year-old said. "We proposed 8,000 euros ($9,455) and we actually got there with worldwide support." She added, "Most of the time we don't recover our expenses just to enter (an) event. So we rely on sponsors or owners. And being a smaller nation I really battle to get both of those."

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Which is why so many riders are riding instructors on the side or have lucrative day jobs, such as oil trader Jose Maria Larocca, a show jumper from Argentina, who owns three of the four horses his team used in Tokyo. (Most riders don't own their horses.) But, he told NBC, he needs the job "to be able to help me support my sport. Argentina is a little bit removed from the center of the sport that is in Europe, it's not so easy to get horses and it would be a bit harder [without my job]."

Even comparatively spartan sports such as judo—two opponents, two judogis, bare feet—require a major financial commitment. Irish judoka Ben Fletcher—who competed for Great Britain in Rio and then switched to representing Ireland—works as a horticulturalist at his parents' garden center to fund his blossoming dream, also making it to the Men's 100 kg in Tokyo. Australian skeet shooter Paul Adams was busily training to become a nurse before Rio and competed there and in Tokyo as a full-fledged RN, calling his employer "very supportive" of his Olympian side hustle.

And she didn't shoot and score (a medal) for Canada in Rio or Tokyo, but two-time Olympian Lynda Kiejko's career as a civil engineer funds her training for various pistol events. She works at Altalink, the power transmission company that provides the electricity for about 85 percent of the province of Alberta. Asked if she felt her two areas of expertise aligned, Kiejko said in the series Day Jobs, "I think there's almost a direct correlation." With engineering, you break down a problem and figure out "how everything all works," and shooting was very similar, she explained.

Figure skater Adam Rippon, one of the breakout stars of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, where he shared in the U.S. team's bronze, told CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin on Squawk Box in 2018 that, even after being a two-time world junior champion, he ended up living in his coach's basement and swiping apples from the gym.

Adam Rippon Celebrates the 2019 Golden Globes

"Six years ago, I had no money to my name," he said. "I just leased a car and I got a letter in the mail saying that my credit was so bad that they needed to take the car back. My coach co-signed on the lease so that I could keep the car and he said: 'I trust you. And I trust that you're going to work hard.'"

Finally having some disposable income after making the most of the spotlight, which led to him winning Dancing With the Stars in 2018 and more fun gigs, such as guest-hosting Rupaul's Drag Race "Ruveal" features, Rippon said he enjoyed splurging, albeit responsibly.

"You should be saving money, you should be doing everything you can to plan for the future," he said on CNBC's Make It, "but I think that it's important to celebrate what you have now. If you have the money saved up and you're not doing something crazy, then you should go out and you should do that. That's what making money is for."

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Day jobs for winter athletes are especially common, such as the prevalent occupation among the U.S. Olympic bobsledding team in 2018, which counted two National Guardsmen (Justin Olsen and Nick Cunningham) and two Army officers (Chris Fogt and Nathan Weber) among its ranks. Luger Emily Sweeney was also a member of the National Guard. Curler Tabitha Peterson was a pharmacist, Jessica Kooreman sold real estate when she wasn't short-track speed-skating and snowboarder Jonathan Cheever was a licensed plumber (but he specialized in racing, not pipe).

On Real Sports in 2018, Cheever estimated that he spent about $30,000 out of pocket financing his World Cup season and training, but he was proud to have sponsors including a water heater supplier and national toilet distributor American Standard.

"Proud if I'm racing snowboards or proud if I'm putting in a water heater or toilet," he told the Salt Lake Tribune. "I'm pumped to make sure the customer's happy and my work looks great. Now to have these companies support me is awesome."

JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

And then there are Olympians who are doing fine, they're climbing the ranks of their sport, but what they'd really like to do is give a boost to the people who got them on that podium, and the extra windfall from medaling is going to get them there. Tokyo gold medalist Tamyra Mensah-Stock, who became the first Black woman to ever win wrestling gold for the U.S. when she triumphed in the women's freestyle 68 kg, is taking her $37,500 from the USOPC and buying her mom a food truck.

"I made a promise to her and she loves cooking," the 28-year-old told People. "It's just one of her passions. Growing up, we'd be like, 'Ooh, mommy, you put your back into this food [using a portable grill]. Like you literally put your foot in it.'" The athlete first suggested a whole truck five years ago. "And I just keep telling her," Mensah-Stock recalled, 'Just hold off, mommy, please just hold off."

Sometimes it just takes awhile for success to turn into gold.