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Olympians, especially if they win gold, silver, or bronze are rich, right? Michael Phelps, five-time Olympian, and the most decorated Olympic athlete with 28 total medals, 23 gold, has an estimated net worth of $80 million.
American snowboarder Shaun White known as the “Flying Tomato” for his flaming hair, is worth an estimated $60 million. Usain Bolt, the Jamaican eight-time Olympic gold medalist track and fielder, known as the fastest man alive, is worth an estimated $90 million, and Caitlyn Jenner, gold medalist in the 1976 men’s decathlon is worth a reported $100 million.
All were amateur athletes who won big at their sports and with sponsorships later. Combined, the above former athletes landed the likes of Colgate, Kellogg, Louis Vuitton, Burton Snowboards, Park City Mountain Resort, Red Bull, Target, Verizon, Gatorade, Visa, Wheaties, Coca-Cola, and Mac Cosmetics, among many others.
These athletes have gone on to capitalize on their brand, their name, and their big-money endorsements. Most of the top earners, or at least ones that had managers like “momager” Kris Jenner, ex-spouse of Caitlin Jenner, get their athletes speaking gigs, book deals, cameos, and even reality television shows.
It’s even safe to say that Simone Biles, the GOAT (greatest of all time) of the women’s gymnastics team, who withdrew from competition earlier this week for mental health issues, will continue with her sponsorships such as Nike and Special K. Biles is reportedly already worth an estimated $50 million.
For what it’s worth on the surface, you’d think that Olympic medal winners are set for life in the shadow of their glory fueled by fame, commercials, and continued financial opportunity. But the reality for most of the medal-wielding athletes can be very different.
Not All Olympic Athletes are Rich
It’s only the athletes that compete in high-profile sports that clean up when it comes to endorsements. And even if athletes were to sign on the dotted line with say, Amazon or Apple, not likely as most behemoth companies court only superstar Olympians in coveted popular sports, an injury or withdrawal like that of Biles, could cut their paycheck.
In fact, many top athletes live closer to the poverty line than the High Line, the park that runs along Manhattan’s West Side. If your sport is kayaking, fencing, equestrian, or handball, you’re not likely to star in a Nike ad anytime soon, no matter the color of the medal you bring home.
Why Go to the Olympics Then?
For most of the athletes, it’s never been about the money but rather their dream of qualifying and medaling at what likely is their passion sport. And even when they do bring home gold, silver, or bronze the money often doesn’t follow.
The U.S. Olympic and ParaOlympic Committee pay athletes:
- $37,500 for the gold medal
- $22,500 for the silver medal
- $15,000 for the bronze medal
By comparison, Singapore pays their gold medalist athletes $1 million Singapore dollars ($737,000), Italy pays gold winners $213,000, and Hungary, $168,000.
Going for Broke
Ronda Rousey won a bronze medal in judo in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But afterward ended up homeless living in her Honda Accord. She later became bantamweight champ for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), a mixed martial arts league.
Worse, hundreds of other athletes go back home, only to have to find a job, live with family, or get assistance with housing, food, and daily expenses.
More than 100 athletes reportedly started GoFundMe pages in the lead up to the Rio games in 2016 to get friends, family, and fans, if they had them, to help pony up for equipment, training, travel, and basic expenses just to be able to compete in their sport. And tales of financial struggle plague even the most gifted Olympians.
In a 2020 survey of 500 Olympic athletes by an Olympic rights group called Global Athlete, 58% didn’t consider themselves financially stable. And when asked whether they received the appropriate mental health care, ongoing medical care, or post-career transition training, the majority said no to all.
Shouldn’t the U.S. Do Better?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) did relax guidelines on rule 40 a few years ago. The rule restricts athletes from fully cashing in on their advertising sponsorships while the Olympics are ongoing when in fact, athletes have the largest platform of visibility in their sport during competition. But most athletes believe there need to be more changes to the rules about sponsorship, selling images, and building their brands at the games themselves.
And in case you’re wondering … no, they can’t melt down or cash in on their actual medals. Gold medals are gold-plated containing about 1% pure gold with a value of about $800 depending on the gold market, while silver medals are worth about $450 and bronze virtually nothing.
For now, and maybe forever, few gold medal Olympians in the highest-profile sports will walk away to riches, while the vast majority will simply walk away with the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, and not much else.