The Summer Olympics are a sports entertainment spectacle beyond compare, generating fanatical worldwide interest and billions of dollars in revenue from broadcast rights, sponsorship deals and other sources. This year’s Rio games are expected to bring in more than $4 billion in TV rights fees alone.
So, how much do the stars of this lucrative show earn? With rare exception, not much.
Olympic athletes aren’t paid for their world-class performances. While some benefit from various forms of underwriting, most have to work and scrimp while they follow their dreams of gold.
Corporate sponsorships are a significant source of funding for Olympic athletes. But much of this support goes to marquee Olympians who can generate positive publicity or endorse products for their sponsors. Swimwear maker Speedo, for example, paid swimmer Michael Phelps $1 million for his record-breaking seven-gold-medals performance at the 2012 summer games. Snowboarder Shaun White has racked up more than $20 million in endorsement money while Skier Bodie Miller has made $8 million.
Corporations sometimes underwrite entire teams – bobsled, track and field, et cetera – but that support doesn’t often include direct payments to athletes. One notable exception: Home Depot once had a program in which it paid aspiring Olympians full-time wages to work part-time in its home improvement stores. The company ended that practice in 2009 citing the tough economy.
Athletes in popular sports occasionally make a small amount of money directly from competition – prize money, stipends, appearance fees, et cetera. The top 10 U.S. track and field athletes made an average of just $15,000 per year from the sport, according to a 2012 study. Those outside the top 10, with the exception of a few sprinters, made little or nothing directly from competition.
While the U.S. Olympic Committee doesn’t pay athletes, it does cover travel and other costs of attending the games. Athletes can earn bonuses for medaling -- $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bringing home the bronze.
Like many young people with a dream, aspiring Olympians economize and hustle to meet their money needs. Athletes frequently live in group houses near their training sites. Others live with “host families,” who provide room and board in exchange for the chance to play a small part in potential Olympic glory.
Most Olympians work at least part time in jobs ranging from model (swimmer Amanda Beard) to teacher, construction worker -- even accountant. Olympians in training have also been know to hold fundraisers for themselves, including happy hours and auctioning themselves off as celebrity dates.
Of course, for a very select few Olympians, all the discipline and sacrifice pays off huge in the form of a lucrative post-games career. Such rewards are usually reserved for gold medalists in high visibility sports – guys like boxer Floyd Mayweather, decathlete Bruce Jenner and sprinter Michael Johnson.
But you don’t have to win gold to make lots of gold. Among the non-medalist Olympians who have gone on to greater fame and fortune was a British diver who competed in the 1988, 1992 and 1996 summer games.
That diver was Jason Statham, arguably today’s top action movie star.