There's no paycheck for training to compete. So how do Olympic athletes pay their bills?

I recall preparing over two Olympic quadrennials to get ready for the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.

I trained as a shooter for the boycotted Moscow Games (a team I did not make) and the Los Angeles Games (which I did make and later medalled in). It was not a financially comfortable time in my life.

I supported myself with a mix of funding from the G.I. Bill, a graduate assistantship teaching physical education classes, and work as a shooting coach. I also served part-time as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. All told, from working three jobs, I earned $500 a month (around $1,500 today), plus the cost of tuition.


Recently, while sitting in traffic, I noticed a weathered bumper sticker with a little acoustic guitar on it that said, “Real musicians have day jobs.”

In that way, "real" musicians and Olympians seem to have a lot in common. They have ambition and enthusiasm for their craft. But like musicians, the talented young athletes of the Olympic Games still have to pay the bills. How do they support themselves and their families while diligently training, often for several hours a day, over the course of years?

Many might think that since athletes are at the pinnacles of their sports, they’re all able to live comfortably.

We assume that athletes are raking in the dough, either from endorsements or professional competitions. After all, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’ estimated net worth is about $55,000,000.

But most who do make it to Pyeongchang receive very little funding — and most don’t make a lot of money off their sport outside of the Olympics, either. For example, two-time Olympic javelin thrower Cyrus Hostetler recently told The Washington Post that the most he’s ever earned in a year is $3,000.

Sure, many athletes become celebrities and end up making their living from corporate endorsements or their likenesses plastered all over boxes of Wheaties. Snowboarder Shaun White and skier Lindsey Vonn compete in the Olympic Games and then return to a life of material comfort. But these folks are few and far between.

The average U.S. Olympian simply does not live in the highest level of the financial stratosphere.

According to the Track and Field Athletic Association, there’s a “steep pyramid of income opportunities” for track and field athletes, with only a “select few” able to earn a very good living. 50% of track athletes who rank in the top 10 in the U.S. in their event earn less than $15,000 annually from the sport.

Unlike many other countries, the United States federal government doesn’t fund Olympic programs, though some athletes get special funding from their national governing bodies. For example, USA Swimming reportedly provides approximately $3,000 to national team members of its top 16 ranked athletes.

But other aspiring athletes are actually unemployed and need to be supported by their families — and some families have even gone bankrupt trying to support their son’s or daughter’s Olympic dreams. Leading up to the 2012 Games in London, U.S. News reported that gymnast Gabby Douglas’ mother had filed for bankruptcy, in part due to “the high cost of her daughter’s training, which involved living away from home for two years.”

In reality, current Olympians and countless hopefuls hold down real jobs working all shifts.

You name it, they do it: waiter, teacher, coach, construction worker, public speaker, janitor, and many other jobs. Many are undergraduate and graduate students who train at their universities. Some serve in the military. Several fortunate athletes live and train at regional Olympic training centers like those at Colorado Springs, Chula Vista, and Lake Placid.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has created athlete employment programs that offer some support and employment opportunities. For example, the Team USA Athlete Career and Education Program (ACE) exists to link aspiring athletes with organizations like Coca-Cola and Dick’s Sporting Goods, among others, that provide full- and part-time employment.

I just received a Social Security statement of earned income during the eight years that I trained as an Olympian.

It doesn’t reflect the wages of a rich man during my Olympic quest — and even with what I did make, I was probably one of the lucky ones. Many more fail in the dream to make an Olympic team than those who actually get to walk behind the flag in the opening ceremonies.

Chasing the Olympic dream can be exhausting. It’s not a straight path. Even those who achieve the physical excellence necessary may have to drop out of their chase for a medal because of finances.

So when you watch the Olympics, consider the personal stories of the 2016 U.S. Olympians who might be making less than $12,000 a year. I can tell you from personal experience it’s not easy.

But I can also tell you it can be quite rewarding.

This piece was originally published by The Conversation and is reprinted here with permission.

Most Shared

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

RELATED: This fascinating comic explains why we shouldn't use some Native American designs.

Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

popular

Gerrymandering is a funny word, isn't it? Did you know that it's actually a mashup of the name "Gerry" and the word "salamander"? Apparently, in 1812, Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry had a new voting district drawn that seemed to favor his party. On a map, the district looked like a salamander, and a Boston paper published it with the title The GerryMander.

That tidbit of absurdity seems rather tame compared to an entire alphabet made from redrawn voting districts a century later, and yet here we are. God bless America.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Facebook / Maverick Austin

Your first period is always a weird one. You know it's going to happen eventually, but you're not always expecting it. One day, everything is normal, then BAM. Puberty hits you in a way you can't ignore.

One dad is getting attention for the incredibly supportive way he handled his daughter's first period. "So today I got 'The Call,'" Maverick Austin started out a Facebook post that has now gone viral.

The only thing is, Austin didn't know he got "the call." His 13-year-old thought she pooped her pants. At that age, your body makes no sense whatsoever. It's a miracle every time you even think you know what's going on.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Wikipedia

Women in country music are fighting to be heard. Literally. A study found that between 2000 and 2018, the amount of country songs on the radio by women had fallen by 66%. In 2018, just 11.3% of country songs on the radio were by women. The statistics don't exist in a vacuum. There are misogynistic attitudes behind them. Anyone remember the time radio consultant Keith Hill compared country radio stations to a salad, saying male artists are the lettuce and women are "the tomatoes of our salad"...? Air play of female country artists fell from 19% of songs on the radio to 10.4% of songs on the radio in the three years after he said that.

Not everyone thinks that women are tomatoes. This year's CMA Awards celebrated women, and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles saw the opportunity to bring awareness to this issue and "inspire conversation about country music's need to play more women artists on radio and play listings," as Nettles put it on her Instagram. She did it in a uniquely feminine way – by making a fashion statement that also made a statement-statement.

Keep Reading Show less
popular