Securing a bid to the Olympics is, by design, no easy feat.
More than 11,000 athletes were slated to compete Toyko, including over 600 from the United States. It’s an exclusive club, but for many of those who have spent countless hours training and preparing, the culmination of a successful Olympic bid makes the effort all the more rewarding.
But a bid doesn’t necessarily translate into a rewarding payday, especially when the Games don’t happen.
Olympic athletes often struggle to piece together incomes even in the best of times, piecing together prize money, stipends, sponsorship and crowdfunding to support their dreams. A full-time job is nearly impossible, given the physical demands of training and frequent travel to training camps, and the delayed Games added an additional year of continued training costs.
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More than half of U.S. Olympic hopefuls, or 59%, reported making less than $25,000 during the year of their respective Olympics, according to a COVID-19 impact survey distributed to 4,400 athletes by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. A total of 643 Olympic athletes and 94 Paralympic athletes responded.
For many athletes — about one-third of those polled by the USPOC — making a living means relying on sponsorships and prize money from competitions, both of which were thrown into limbo throughout a pandemic-altered year that delayed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and canceled many other competitions.
Even with the Olympics happening this year, athletes who have traveled to Tokyo aren't paid to compete — at least not directly.
So how do Olympians earn money and how much? Here's a breakdown:
What are Olympic medal bonuses?
The International Olympic Committee, the Games' organizing body, doesn’t pay any athletes who participate in a particular Olympiad, or give out prize money for medals.
It’s akin to how leagues like the NFL and the NBA don’t pay players; instead, individual teams in the league are responsible for providing compensation. Unlike within those leagues, which have minimum salaries that teams must meet, there are no Olympics-wide requirements for paying athletes. Instead, the onus rests on individual nations or private parties.
One primary way countries choose to reward their top athletes who place among the top of the field in their respective competitions is through medal bonuses.
Many countries offer monetary rewards to their athletes for the number or type of medals they win at the Olympics.
How much are the U.S. Olympic medal bonuses?
As part of “Operation Gold,” an initiative the USOPC launched in 2017, U.S. Olympians who reach the podium receive payments of $37,500 for every gold medal won, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze. Pots are divvied up evenly to each member in team competitions, according to CNBC.
Since October 2016, legislation has ensured athletes will bring home 100% of their earnings, too. Congress that year nixed a so-called “victory tax” that had previously designated prize money as taxable earned income, though Olympians who report gross income of more than $1 million a year are still subject to the tax.
Which country gives the biggest medal bonus?
Singapore offers what could be the biggest prize for an individual gold medal: 1 million in Singaporean dollars, or roughly $750,000 USD. Silver medal winners get about $369,000 and $184,000 for bronze, CNBC reports.
Medalists from the next highest two countries, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, earn about $250,000 for gold medal. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics host country Japan gives athletes finishing at the podium $45,000 for gold, $18,000 for silver and $9,000 for bronze.
How much do Olympic athletes make from sponsorships?
Of course, Olympians will end up on Wheaties boxes and in television ads, too, employing their likenesses to market products or services through individual deals.
The exact values of Olympics sponsorships are often not disclosed. But for the upper echelon of athletes, the household names that dominate headlines and Olympics ads, figures stretch into the millions.
In 2013, Reuters reported that now-retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt signed a roughly $10 million a year deal with Puma during the years he continued to compete. Forbes in 2016 estimated Bolt made nearly $33 million during a 12-month period.
Katie Ledecky, who won two gold medals in Tokyo, signed a $7 million contract with swimwear brand TYR in 2018 after earning a whopping four gold medals in Rio, according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell. Her deal, reported to run through the 2024 Olympic Games, was one of the “most lucrative” partnerships in swimming history, TYR said in a June 2018 release.
A marketable athlete like Simone Biles earns at least $5 million a year, according to a Forbes estimate, through her many sponsorship partners, including major companies like Visa, Athleta, United Airlines, Oreo's, Uber Eats, MasterClass and Facebook.
U.S. athletes in Tokyo will also have more freedom than ever before to benefit from sponsors thanks to a 2019 decision from the USOPC that loosened marketing rules. Competitors may now thank personal sponsors, appear in ads for those sponsors and receive congratulatory messages from them during the games — but without mentioning or displaying the Olympic logo — all aspects that were previously blocked.
And for the first time, collegiate athletes will also be able to benefit from any commercial endorsements they may secure at the Olympics thanks to last months landmark Supreme Court ruling that prompted the NCAA to change its policy on athlete's ability to earn money from their name, image and likeness.
How else do Olympic athletes make money?
Even if an athlete doesn’t earn a medal or get signed by a corporate sponsor, they could still earn "wages" for competing in the form of stipends.
In the United States, the USOPC distributes some of its funding among 45 national governing bodies (NGBs), 37 of which oversee sports in the Summer Olympics. The Committee handed down $21 million in grants directly to athletes and another $66 million to training organizations in 2019, according to the nonprofit’s most recent impact report.
Pay systems from there vary by NGB, which can also generate income and provide additional athlete compensation independent from the USOPC.
The money is allocated based on performance, or "likelihood that an athlete will win a medal," Team USA spokesman Mark Jones previously told NBC. However, this pay-for-performance model leaves some less-popular organizations struggling to support their athletes, and only those likely to win a medal getting financial support.
USA Weightlifting, for instance, has an annual budget of $480,000, excluding $131,000 it receives from the USOC, to help provide funding support for its athletes and pay for training and competition expenses. Weightlifters likely to win a medal can receive a stipend of $4,000 a month, while those "likely to qualify" for the Olympics get $2,500. Weightlifters still in the development phase of their career are eligible to receive $750 a month.
USA Boxing also relies on a mixed system, especially because the team only allows amateurs to compete at the Olympics (though Team USA allowed pros to compete in Tokyo, spurred by the COVID-19-caused cancellation of the Americas Olympic Boxing Qualifying Event earlier this year). A sport-wide change in 2016 welcomed professional boxers into the Olympics for the first time, but USA Boxing held out longer.
The amateur boxers on the USA squad receive base stipends of $1,500 a month. They can also win world championship medal bonuses, like Olympic bonuses, which tier from $40,000 for a gold medal to $35,000 for silver and $30,000 for bronze, according to a team spokesperson.
Matthew Johnson, USA Boxing's high performance director, notes that boxers have access to high end training facilities and top coaching, resources he says are estimated at $50,000 to $100,000 a year, which USA Boxing sees as its advantage over the professional world.
“A lot of times, people see what's going directly into your bank account. But they don't see all the other value that comes with being a part of Team USA, the resources and just the support that you have on a day-to-day basis,” said Matthew Johnson, USA Boxing's high performance director. “That's a big piece that we're trying to educate our members on, to show the value of staying in the amateur program.”
Other organizations also provide monthly payments to athletes but don’t disclose the exact figures. USA Softball says it pays all of its athletes each month, including 15 players on the roster and three alternates, and provides money for meals on each trip. Most of the players have personal sponsors, too, a spokesperson said.
Unmish Parthasarathi, founder and executive director at consulting firm Picture Board Partners, tells CNBC one profitable career move for athletes is to go into coaching after retirement as people are willing to pay a premium for former Olympians.
Has COVID-19 affected how Olympic athletes get paid?
About 75% of the athletes responding to the USOPC survey reported losing income due to the pandemic. More than a quarter said they lost more than half of their income.
“It’s a little bit tough because at the end of the day my contract, that’s my salary,” track and field athlete Ryan Crouser told The Associated Press in March 2020. “That’s where I make the majority of my money.”
Another 28% of responders from the survey said they applied for and received unemployment benefits, while more than a third said at the time they weren’t sure how to apply or if they were eligible.
To help mitigate these lost earnings, the USOPC partnered with the Athletes’ Advisory Council and NGBs to raise more than $1.4 million for a COVID Athlete Assistance Fund, the organization announced in October 2020.
The efforts resulted in supplemental one-time stipends of $1,163 for 1,220 athletes in the U.S., the USOPC said.
“We heard directly from so many athletes and, with our incredible donors, recognized the opportunity to step in to help alleviate the financial burdens many Olympic and Paralympic athletes are facing,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said in the statement.