Why so many Olympians are broke

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  • Sixty percent of elite athletes don't consider themselves financially stable.
  • Unless they win, USA Olympians don't get paid for competing at the Olympics.
  • The pay structure has left many athletes broke, driving for DoorDash, or crowdsourcing.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Some Olympians make millions of dollars. But a recent global study of 500 elite athletes found that nearly 60% did not consider themselves financially stable. We're not sponsored athletes on cereal boxes and Gatorade bottles. I started driving for DoorDash. I worked at Panera, a bank. The financial strain is huge.

Narrator: That's because unless they win a medal, Olympians don't get paid for competing at the games. You see someone that's on television all the time and assume all Olympic athletes are famous, all you have to do is get a medal and you'll be rich. And nothing could be further from the truth.

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Narrator: They also have a long list of expenses to train for their sport.

Lauryn: And you also are responsible for your coach, making sure that they are paid and compensated accordingly. Massage therapists, nutritionists. Something like a $250,000 earning turns into $125,000 really quick.

Narrator: So how do Olympians make money, and why isn't it enough? Unlike countries such as the UK or Singapore, American Olympians don't get paid to attend the Olympics. If you're not going to be able to afford it, and if you're not doing well, there's like six other people waiting in line just to have the opportunity. We are the only major country in the world, and one of very few countries period, where the government does not get involved in funding its Olympic team.

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Narrator: But there are three main ways they can make money for being an athlete. The first, stipends. Athletes can get stipends directly from the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee or from the groups that run the Olympic sports teams, called the national governing bodies. We pay to our very top athletes around $4,000 a month, plus performance bonuses.

Narrator: An Olympic gold-medal rower told USA Today she receives $2,000 a month. Monica won bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympics. We get a stipend, and it is $300 a month.

Narrator: How much funding an athlete gets depends on performance, and ...

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Lauryn: Their ability is to be able to earn medals. So it's a tough kind of balancing act that the NGBs are doing to figure out, how do we support the athletes that are up-and-coming, but then also how do we make sure that those who are doing awesome right now are well cared for?

Narrator: Lauryn Williams competed in Olympic track and field and bobsled. She was the first American woman to win medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. The funding was quite different between the two. Bobsled is a much smaller Olympic sport, and so there's three medals that we can earn.

Narrator: Compare that to track and field, where 128 American athletes are headed to the Olympic Games competing for 48 gold medals. Swimming, there's a lot of money, gymnastics, there's a lot of money. NBA, I mean, we don't even have to cover that one. It's the niche sports that really struggle the most.

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Narrator: Athletes can also make money through sponsorships. A company covers some of their athlete's expenses in exchange for its logo on the athlete's uniform. More often, these sponsorships are performance-based, meaning an athlete has to win a certain number of competitions. Athleta now sponsors Simone Biles. TYR Sport sponsors Katie Ledecky for $7 million. 2K Sports and Nike sponsor Kevin Durant, who rakes in $40 million in sponsorship money every year.

Maggie Steffens: Some of us as athletes have been really fortunate to gain individual sponsorships. That's been hard to come by because people don't know water polo.

Narrator: Sponsorship deals among athletes are inconsistent, ranging from hundreds of dollars to millions. Lauryn: I've seen athletes get very upset because they've performed really well, better than their competitor even, but the competitor has a lot more sponsorship opportunity.

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Narrator: That's because sponsorships don't just depend on the sport. They also depend on the athlete's popularity.

Lauryn: When sponsors and brands are looking at athletes, they're looking at marketability, the return on investment they're going to get. It can literally be you have a huge following on Instagram, or you can just be so good that it's undeniable.

Michael Phelps: Ultra chocolate.

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Narrator: Nailing a coveted sponsorship is hard. Athletes have to go out and get their own sponsors. Finally, athletes can win prize money. Competitions leading up to the Olympics, like the Diamond League meets, can have $10,000 first-place prizes.

Aaron: For me, when I get prize money, I have to immediately disburse that to bills and savings, and also I have to think about, I can't lose, or I can't come in a certain place because I have to make a certain amount of money to either break even or to gain a profit. So always going into a race with that is an immense amount of pressure.

Narrator: The International Olympic Committee doesn't award athletes cash prizes for medals. But some countries do. The United States is one of them. The USOPC has something called Operation Gold. So if you earn a medal at the Olympic Games, there's prize money for the top three places there. Narrator: In every sport, the USOPC awards a $37,500 medal bonus for gold, $22,500 for silver, and $15,000 for bronze. But the USA's medal bonuses are lower than what other nations offer. It's a one-time payment.

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Narrator: And those bonuses are only up for grabs every four years when the Olympics come around again. So what kind of consistent salaries do athletes get? Well, it's hard to say. But we do know in 2012, half of the US track and field Olympic team made $15,000 or less a year from the sport, including stipends, prize money, and sponsorships. Compare that to the salary of USA Track & Field's CEO, who earned $1.2 million in 2018. Plus, there are also hefty costs associated with competing at this level.

Lauryn: 15% to 20% generally goes to your agent. So that's money that doesn't exist anymore. And then you also have to pay taxes. Narrator: Coaches can cost more than $100 an hour. That bobsled Lauryn competed in costs about $30,000.

Aaron: If I got to get shoes every two to three months, that's $200, $300.

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Narrator: There's the price of gym time, massage and sports medicine appointments, dieticians, lots of healthy food, you name it. In 2012, US News & World Report found it costs up to $100,000 a year for athletes to be Olympians.

Lauryn: During the course of my career, I was really fortunate. I never earned less than $250,000. But there's a lot of expenses associated with being an athlete, because you are in fact a business, and a business has overhead. Something like a $250,000 earning turns into $125,000 really quick.

Narrator: Many athletes have turned to crowdsourcing to supplement their incomes. Monica started one to fund her way to Tokyo. It's now up to $30,000. Aaron's GoFundMe helped finance his way to the Olympic track and field trials in July.

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Aaron: In a matter of 22 hours, I want to say it was, I had all the money that I needed, and it was such a wild moment for me.

Narrator: But most athletes have to take on part-time work. Working a part-time job at Scheels, which is an all-sports store here in Iowa City.

Maggie: You know, a lot of girls on our team are coaches. I own a business.

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Narrator: And the pay gap among athletes has only worsened during the pandemic. A lot of hourly jobs went away for a good period of time during COVID. And then there was training facilities being shut down.

Monica: I would ref competitions here in New York City, but all of them were canceled, so I wasn't making money from that. I didn't even have ways of making money for rent. Everything was shut down. Like, even social media companies weren't even paying for us to be putting out different campaigns. So it was definitely rough.

Aaron: There was meets that I thought I would be able to get in and clean up and make money I didn't have. It really set me back financially.

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Narrator: It's left Olympians and their families struggling to make ends meet. I've been raised by a single mother since I'm 8 years old, so she definitely was funding everything when I was younger. She went into credit card debt because of me. I feel like I am one of the best in America. So if I can do that while I'm at one point working two jobs and DoorDash and everything like that, then I can't imagine what I can do if I didn't have to do that. There's times where I don't even have money in my bank account.

Narrator: Things have shifted a bit to help athletes. At the 2018 games, the USOPC upped the medal bonuses by 50%. They changed the rules so athletes won't be taxed on their medal bonuses if they make under $1 million annually. US Olympians used to have to pay as much as $8,900 in taxes on a gold medal bonus. The IOC has recently eased Rule 40, which prohibited athletes from making money off their image rights before, during, and after the Olympics. But now, athletes' sponsors can run certain ads during the Rule 40 period. And in 2020, the USOPC launched the Athlete Marketing Project, which better connects athletes with sponsors. But the moves haven't been sweeping enough. Phil thinks that some of the funding for Team USA should come from the US government.

Phil: That money could ensure that our US Olympic team are treated equally to the level of achievement or treated to a salary that is appropriate for them representing this country.

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Narrator: Across America, athletes are facing a decision. Is it all worth it? Twenty-seven times over, yes, yes, and yes. Even if it was half the income, I don't think that I would for regret one moment having participated in sport. I get to play the sport I love every single day. That's wealth. That's being rich. But I wouldn't be upset if in the future, we were able to make some more money and not necessarily have to have two jobs.

Aaron: It kind of puts a chip on my shoulder to go even harder, to compete at the best and compete with the best so that I can take myself out of this position.

Monica: That's my only question over the next three years of, do I continue another three years of being broke? I want to go back. I want to have the opportunity to win an individual medal. But is it worth being broke again?

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