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Almost all Olympic athletes will come home to four more years of day jobs

February 20, 2018
Curling - Winter Olympics Day 10

Streeter Lecka

As the Olympic games begin to wind down, I wondered what some of these athletes will do when they get back home. They’re not pro basketball players, and they’re not all Lindsey Vonns and Shaun Whites. They’re curlers, speed skaters, bobsledders, biathletes—not exactly sports that attract a bunch of lucrative sponsorships or endorsements that allow athletes to coast through the four-year interim between Olympiads. No, when the games are over, the majority of our Olympic athletes go home to face the reality of their day jobs so they can afford to simultaneously train themselves to exhaustion for four years.

So I looked further into this and immediately felt like a lazy bastard. For a sample of our athletes competing this month in Pyeongchang, a member of the women's luge team is a soldier; one of our curlers is a registered nurse; another luger is a firefighter; and a pairs figure skater is an auto mechanic.

The situation overall is in some ways more extreme than I anticipated. First off, the U.S. government—unlike the U.K., Indonesia, China, and Korea—doesn't fund the athletes it loves to hold up as paragons of American values: Hard work will get you to the top! Of course, the medals themselves pay out (funded by the International Olympic Committee), but they don't pay much: $25,000 for gold; $15,000 for silver; and $10,000 for bronze. But by contrast, the President of the IOC gets an "allowance" of $251,000 each year—or more than forty gold medals per Olympiad. On top of that the Prez gets to live in a five-star hotel in Switzerland for free. (The President is technically a "volunteer," and the IOC is technically listed as a non-profit.).

Not only do most of our Olympic athletes make almost nothing from their sport, according to the Olympians themselves, the costs of competing—coaching, of course, but also the cost of travel, practice facilities, and basic living expenses—often run over $100,000 annually. As you can imagine, that debt ratio is a real problem. In the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, Gabby Douglas's training costs helped propel her mother into bankruptcy. Ryan Lochte's parents went underwater on their home while he was training and competing.

(To be fair, no one respects Ryan Lochte. As one example among dozens, Lochte paid Paul Wall $25,000 in 2012 [LINK ] to design a diamond-and-ruby encrusted American flag grill, which Lochte was forbidden from wearing on the medal podium. (Remember a gold medal is also worth $25,000.) Still, you gotta hope against hope the guy is helping his parents.

And though Lochte's more famous and more likable teammate Michael Phelps is worth much more than he is—about $55 million—at the other end of the pool, you've got people like 2012 Olympian Cyrus Hostetler (javelin), who said in 2011 he made less than $3,000 from his sport. And fine, you can say that's just the javelin toss; what do you expect? But again, it's just the javelin: That's how dedicated Hostetler is to dominating a sport he knows won't pay anything. And the U.S. won't help him. Many Olympic athletes make similar amounts annually.

2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials - Day 4

Andy Lyons

Not only is there the stress of the work itself, Olympians are by and large insanely competitive, and they deal with the psychological pressure of unimaginable wealth inequality in their small community. What's more, sometimes only a tenth of a second can make the difference between being a full-time and part-time athlete. And if those split-seconds afford you the means to simply train and compete full-time, you'll likely improve more, and likely get richer. If you can't afford full-time training, you've got to clear higher hurdles.

Take track & field: The top one-fifth of top-ten U.S.-ranked track athletes make over $50,000 a year, but the bottom 50% in that group make less than $15,000. The gap gets much bigger when you pull out to global rankings: The top ten ranked track & field athletes in the world can make around $100,000 a year. The top two or three of those athletes—a difference of tenths, often hundredths of seconds—make even more than that.

But when you compare even the elite athletes to the Olympic executives? That $100,000 income is less than half of what the "volunteer" IOC president makes.

So what do the majority of our elite athletes, people like Hostetler, do to make ends meet? They bear the stress of a rigorous training schedule and squeeze in a damn job. Those jobs are almost always necessarily part-time, a great many are low-paying, and the regular interruptions of travel, training, and competition limit options for work.

There are the obvious coaching opportunities, but many athletes take work that has no relationship or side benefit to their sport. Those jobs include accountant, waiter, disc jockey, mechanic, plumber, teacher, construction worker, public speaker, janitor, and perhaps most incredibly, service in the U.S. military.

And it turns out that a lot of them come home to work for Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has a program designed specifically to accommodate the schedules of Olympians who don’t make money. (Home Depot once had a similar program.) Adecco, the temp firm, has joined with the U.S. Olympic Committee to develop a sort of "adopt an athlete" job placement program. They sponsor Olympic and Paralympic athletes, help them find employment, and encourage companies to hire them.

Fencing - Olympics: Day 3

Patrick Smith

The first American to medal while wearing a hijab -- Ibtihaj Muhammad -- took advantage of the Dick's program. She also owns a clothing line called Louella. Her sport, though—fencing—costs many thousands of dollars annually. The uniform costs more than $1,200, and the foils (swords) run between $300 and $400 apiece. Add to that training, entry fees for competitions, travel, and living expenses, and you can understand why, as Muhammad says, fencing is one of the most expensive Olympic events. She says that in total it can cost more than $20,000 a year to compete in this relatively obscure sport.

However, Muhammad got the spotlight in 2016, and as a result she'll likely net endorsement deals that will make it easier for her to afford her sport, and she could likely leave Dick's to promote her clothing line and train. By comparison, another Dick's Olympian, curler John Shuster—now competing in his fourth Olympics—says he's earned $19,985 this curling season. He also just had a second child.

Small wonder, then, that Olympic athletes are as a group more financially responsible and likely to save their money.

I still want to take up curling.