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It’s Really Hard to Make Money as an Olympian

Triathlon Preview Olympics
Gwen Jorgensen celebrates after crossing the finish line to win the women's triathlon ITU World Olympic Qualification Event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 2, 2015.FELIPE DANA/AP
THE OLYMPICS DRIVE athletes to get ever faster, higher, and stronger, to quote its Latin motto: “Citius, altius, fortius.”But while the Games show athletes at the peak of human potential, it rarely does much for their earning potential.

Every Olympiad, it seems, sees a new crop of athletes become celebrities, their names and faces recognized by millions. Reaching that point requires staggering amounts of time, focus, and discipline with money. “You have to throw everything into it, and it becomes a kind of obsession,” says Craig Leon of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. Yet it brings little wealth. “For a lot of Olympic athletes, there isn’t a lot of money to be made,” he says. In fact, the Olympics can hurt an athlete’s earning power.

The biggest impact is lost earning potential. Training for gold leaves little time to train for a career. “When Olympic athletes decide they’re done, and they’re in their late 20s or early 30s, they’re ready to hop into the working world. But their work experience is often little to none,” says Leon, a marathoner who once made it to the Olympic trials.
Olympians can earn a living on prize money, sponsorships, and speaking engagements, but not everyone gets that chance. And US athletes don’t receive the government support paid to their competitors abroad. They rely upon stipends—sometimes as little as $400 monthly—from the governing board of their particular sport. Medal winners receive a bonus of as much as $25,000 from the US Olympic Committee, but beyond that, there isn’t much. Olympic sports rarely provides a decent income to anyone but the biggest stars. “It’s such a crapshoot,” Leon says.
Of course, few athletes do it for money. Still, they need ungodly amounts of it to succeed, and lots of times, it never returns. Here’s a look at the economics of some of the biggest sports of the Summer Games.
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