Rio 2016 Olympics: an investment or gamble for American Athletes?

If you’re like the GenW team, you’re sad the Rio 2016 Olympics have come to end.  We saw Simone^2 glory, a major win for women, both on the charts and culturally (see Andy Murray crediting Venus and Serena, and Team USA fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad), and, overall, pure domination by the United States – an international and historic one we can truly be proud of!  After the cheer and applause have calmed, the closing ceremony has ended, and we reflect on the many events, the most challenging sport in the Olympics that does not get the limelight nor the applause it deserves is the enormous feat in the form of the steep financial costs the vast majority of U.S. Olympians must win to reach the Olympics.    



From equipment to coaching and travel, costs add up in the thousands for athletes seeking Olympic glory.  A three-day winter camp for kids at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club where Michael Phelps swims is between $675 and $850. And, according to the New York Times, twelve-time Olympic medalist Dara Torres spends around $100,000 a year for her training. Take that with a grain of salt for up-and-coming athletes who have not yet won gold, but if they’re training for it, essentials, such as personal coaching and training at state-of-the-art facilities (not your neighborhood pool) are part of the package.  To add a further layer of challenge to these steep costs is the demanding training that forces Olympian hopefuls to leave (or never secure) full-time jobs, forced to seek out part-time jobs they’re training schedules can accommodate.  Some Olympians coach part-time and a few more lucky ones, do contract work for modeling agencies, for instance, that pays a little better.  All in all though, the financial costs far outweigh any income they can secure to pay the bills and buy food -- athletes need to eat!  On that note, NPR reported that Michael Phelps consumed an astounding 12,000 calories a day during his strict eating regimen to keep up with the hard workouts.  That adds up $$$$.  

A number of athletes have their families and communities to financially support them en-route to the Olympics, but others have taken to crowdfunding platforms to reach their Olympic dream.  In this Rio Olympics 2016, dozens of athletes launched crowdfunding campaigns to raise money to participate and compete in the Olympics.  Times likes these, boy, are we grateful for human generosity as well as corporate support.  Keep reading to find out why!



The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is the highest authority for the nation’s teams.    Unlike most other countries, it exists and functions as a nonprofit without any government support.  The pros of this is that the USOC has complete control over their rules and terms.  The downside is that it must rely on private donations and corporate sponsorships, which varies from year to year (and, also meaning that American Olympians better win some medals!).  Most of the money it raises goes to administrative costs and support for its 30+ National Governing Bodies (typically individual sport associations).  Depending on the sport (swimming and skiing have the largest funds), athletes can receive some direct financial support, mainly to take some of the sting off of the financial burden.  And, as if not being able to secure a full-time job weren’t struggle enough, college-aged Olympians who play or wish to play a their sport on a collegiate level within the NCAA cannot receive corporate sponsorships.    




Different from most western countries, China takes a “nationwide system” approach to support athletes, by financial allocation and sports lottery promotion, making it a country investment. In this system, the General Administration of Sports of China, the highest governing (and government) body that oversees the Olympics, mobilizes resources and power in the country to finance and support coaches and athletes to compete in the Olympics by sport.  Although the direct monthly financial support from government is not a big amount, it’s still enough for a professional athletes to cover basic living cost without a full time job.

The real pressure for Chinese athletes comes from the high intensity training. Most of the Chinese athletes who compete in Olympic games begin to undergo demanding training at a very young age, competing intensely regionally to enter the international scene.  Due to the tough selection system, the majority of these athletes are eliminated midway. Only few elites will be referred to the international competition representing China.

According to Xinhua news agency, the Chinese sports lottery collected about RMB 415 billion (about $56.33 billion) in 2015 to support whole national sports development in China.  In the Beijing 2008 Olympics, China as a host country invested about $44 billion in it -- talk about a country investment.



Trans.  “I have tried my absolute best!”                                      - Olympian Fu Yuanhui

Trans. “I have tried my absolute best!”        

                         - Olympian Fu Yuanhui



So how much is gold worth? As far as U.S cash prizes: a Gold medal is $25,000, the silver prize is $15,000, and bronze will get an American athlete $10,000. But for US Olympians, the real money comes with corporate sponsorships. Gymnast Simone Biles just scored big with Kellogg’s (and now you’ll see her every morning on the cereal box - motivation, eh?).  Phelps’ net worth is an estimated $55 million due to sponsorships of over a decade.  

As for China, a gold medalist at Rio 2016 saw RMB 200,000 (about $30,000), seeing further rewards from their local and regional governments and corporate sponsors. The total estimated values can exceed $150,000 with all non commercial income tax free, but it definitely doesn’t compare to US gold.  As you may imagine, the rewards for silver or bronze are not so fortunate in China. 

But, the chances of winning a medal, let alone GOLD in either China or the US, up against other elite athletes at such a competitive level are pretty slim.  Is the investment worth it with such a small guarantee of a return, especially for US athletes who see no direct financial support from the government?  


I had to choose between my job and the team, and when asked to play for your country, you just don't think twice about it.

- Gregory Brignam, US Paralympic National Soccer

source: Mother Jones