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.
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:
- The Guardian: Go for the gold, end up broke
- Time/Money: Why it's so hard to earn a living as an Olympic athlete
- Wired: It's really hard to make money as an Olympian
- Fortune: How Olympians are funding the expensive road to Rio
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.