The high cost of becoming an Olympic athlete

I'm excited! The Winter Olympics begin today. Or they began yesterday. Or maybe they begin tomorrow. I'm really not sure.

I know that to convert from local time in South Korea to local time in Portland, I need to “add seven hours, then subtract a day”. So, it if it's 11:03 on Friday in Pyeongchang, then it's 18:03 on Thursday here in Oregon. Google says Olympics competition officially begins at 16:05 (4:05 pm) Pacific today (February 7th), so let's go with that. If this article is visible, the Olympics have begun.

Anyhow, I love the Olympics — despite NBC's relentless drive to show as little of the competition as possible. I love the obscure sorts. I love the human stories. And, most of all, I love the sheer athleticism. For the next couple of weeks, much of Get Rich Slowly is going to be written while I'm watching speedskating and ski jumping.

But have you ever thought about the cost of training to become an Olympic athlete? I don't mean the physical, emotional, and mental costs — although those are steep and very real — but the actual financial costs of dedicating yourself to a sport for years in a quest to become the best in the world.

In some countries, the state provides financial assistance for its athletes. Not in the U.S. The U.S. Olympic Committee provides some funding, but its money is spread very thin. As a result, most American athletes pay their own way.

Here's a two-minute clip from Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel that explores the situation:

Snowboarder Jonathan Cheever (32 years old), for instance, has financed his career with $78,000 of credit card debt. The U.S. Olympic Committee gives him a yearly $1500 stipend plus health insurance. Meanwhile, Cheever does what the rest of us do when he's not training: He works. He's a plumber.

Because Olympic dreams are so expensive, many athletes have turned to crowdfunding. Longer ago, competitors used methods like car washes, rallies, and telethons. Nowadays, they turn to sites like RallyMe.

It's true that medalists receive bonuses from the USOC — $25,000 for a gold, $20,000 for a silver, and $15,000 for a bronze — but medaling against scores of world-class competitors is tough. It's almost impossible. The vast majority of Olympic athletes do not medal, and many from the U.S. live near the poverty line as they train, train, train.

Here are some past stories on this subject:

But you know what? I think I admire Olympic athletes even more because the financial costs are so high. I admire that they're willing to dedicate themselves to their sports despite the costs involved. It makes their stories all the more inspiring.

More about...Economics

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Sheila
Sheila
2 years ago

I, too, love the Olympics. When I was at Portland State, I remember watching the summer Olympics while typing (typewriter–that long ago) a term paper with my 9-month old daughter crawling under the table. I never thought about the costs, however, so thanks for the information. It must be difficult, too, for gold medal winners in lesser-known sports who don’t get the endorsement deals that someone in, say, a ski event might get.

Karina
Karina
2 years ago

J. D. – you have caught my heart with your comment about speed skating! Best wishes from snowy Poland. I have been reading you since you’ve returned to your blog, navigated here from ERE. I am in my early 40’s and proud to be one of the first in my part of the planet FI person in ‘MMM’ or better ‘Afford Anything’ style (also female and also RE investment). I have to say it is a pleasant but lonely place as my sourrounding doesn’t get why I have left top management position and started ‘freelancing’ (in reality I do not… Read more »

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

I saw that episode on Bryant Gumble. The structure is terrible. Why do the executives of the non profit organizations get paid so much while the athletes get very little support? It sounds like there are millions available. Why shouldn’t the athletes get more support?
It’s disgraceful.

sa
sa
2 years ago

This episode made me sick to my stomach. My daughter is a paralympic athlete and not only are they poorly funded, the inequality of the olympic athletes and the Paralympic athletes is the real white elephant in the room.

Jennifer
Jennifer
2 years ago

The article was about individual, adult competitors. I think of them in the same way I think about artists, actors, and musicians. They are making choices to pursue their passions, and I wish them the best of luck. I see the cost of the Olympics from the parents’ point of view; so many sports require substantial parental support in time and money to be competitive as young adults. My kids have both had some success with gymnastics and ice skating, but we decided against club sports and private lessons, because our finances and lives were not going to be dedicated… Read more »

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