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Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That’s Not Good Enough

Sure, paying winners is a "step in the right direction." but let's face it: the Olympics is big business, built on free labour

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Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 1

World Athletics, the governing body for track & field and road running, has announced that it will award prize money at the Olympic Games. 

The governing body will make $2.4 million available at the 2024 Paris Olympics, with gold medalists earning $50,000 USD. There are 48 athletics events at the 2024 Olympics, including relays, which will be awarded $50,000 to share amongst the winning team.

Although no prize money will be available to silver and bronze medalists, World Athletics says the prize pot will be expanded for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

Prize money will only be available at the Olympics, not the Paralympics, since a separate body, World Para Athletics, governs para-athletics.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe described the decision as a “pivotal moment” for athletics, with the move promoting a “stable financial landscape” for athletes.

“The introduction of prize money for Olympic gold medallists is a pivotal moment for World Athletics and the sport of athletics as a whole, underscoring our commitment to empowering the athletes and recognizing the critical role they play in the success of any Olympic Games,” Coe said to BBC.

“While it is impossible to put a marketable value on winning an Olympic medal, or on the commitment and focus it takes to even represent your country at an Olympic Games, I think it is important we start somewhere and make sure some of the revenues generated by our athletes at the Olympic Games are directly returned to those who make the Games the global spectacle that it is.”

World Athletics’ decision comes in the wake of two upstart pro track leagues announcing that each will pay top athletes to compete in the coming year. These leagues could lure the best sprinters and distance athletes in the world away from centering their careers around the Summer Games and World Athletics events.

Retired track and field great Michael Johnson, who is spearheading one of the pro leagues, has been vocal in his criticism of how World Athletics spreads its budgets too wide and too thin. Instead, Johnson has teamed up with the company financing the pro tennis circuit in order to create a league that threatens to pay its athletes professional wages.

Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 2

The Olympics: Sportsmanship or Business?

The Olympic Games, led by the International Olympic Committee and individual countries’ organizing bodies, has long framed itself as benevolent, benign and focused on amateur sports. Money is never discussed by the IOC.

But the Olympics a business. And a highly lucrative one at that.

How lucrative, you ask? Well, let’s look at just one factor: broadcasting rights.

In 2021, NBC paid $7.7 billion to show the Olympics in the U.S. until 2032. And while that may seem like a long time, remember, the Olympics only happen for a few weeks every four years (so that’s just a few weeks of coverage for three more Olympics).

At its core, the Olympics are a very profitable TV show. And at the center of this show is the talent: the athletes. Without athletes competing (and performing for the cameras), there are now Olympics, and no multi-billion dollar broadcast contracts.

Not only are the athletes competing at the Olympics the sole reason the Olympics are so profitable, but athlete success stories also bring their respective country global recognition and pride (and some would cynically say soft power and sport washing opportunities). But despite being the reason the Olympics can rake in billions every quad, the athletes aren’t getting their cut. From an IOC perspective, the athletes are nothing more than free labour.

Of course, some athletes, such as Usain Bolt, have used their Olympic fame to kickstart their own careers and have earned multi-million dollar endorsements.

However, the tens of thousands of other athletes who can call themselves Olympians cannot say the same thing despite making the same sacrifices to pursue that Olympic glory.

How fast can Usain Bolt run

How Much Does It Cost To Chase An Olympic Dream?

To try and calculate the cost of chasing an Olympic dream would be near impossible. But let’s take a general look at the costs of making it to the pinnacle of sport.

Let’s First Talk About Monetary Costs.

Gear, training facilities, coaches, camps, races—the list goes on and on, but what does it cost? 

Money. Lots and lots of money.

It’s an unfortunate reality. If you want to go far in athletics, it’s going to cost you… a lot.

So, what does an Olympic-sized investment look like?

The overall investment usually begins when a young athlete is still a child. Parents can expect to spend anywhere from $7,500 to $9,000 per year on coaching, gear, travel, training, etc., for kids competing in competitive sports.

As kids grow up and begin to realize their potential, they step into higher levels of sport. At the elite level, with the Olympics within arms reach, a hopeful athlete will have to rely on a group of professionals, including coaches, strength coaches, nutritionists, doctors, physiotherapists, managers, and agents, in their corner (at a hefty cost, of course).

According to Team USA, the basic costs of producing an Olympian can easily exceed $20,000 per year. This figure factors in the costs of the athlete’s primary coach, strength coach, sports performance support, physiotherapy, and massage.

What it doesn’t take into account are non-sponsored equipment, recovery gear, training camps, rent, groceries, insurance, and other basic costs of living.

Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 3

The Costs That Don’t Have A Price Tag

It’s clear that the cost of an Olympic dream (and that’s the only thing it will be for most, a dream) is a small fortune. However, it’s not the only cost that comes with the dream.

With the Olympics approaching, you’ll likely hear the word “sacrifice” more and more.

But what are these “sacrifices” athletes make in the pursuit of glory?

What initially comes to mind for most people is the early morning training sessions and the hours spent training day in and day out.

Most hopefuls follow a strict diet of bland but healthy foods to help them perform their best and maintain weight. As someone in the realm of top-level endurance sports, I can’t tell you how many times my lunch features a can of tuna, rice, and vegetables.

If you ask any Olympian or Olympic hopeful, they can probably tell you at least one story about the time they missed a major social or milestone event because of training, travel, or competition. 

Weddings, birthdays, graduations (I’ve missed two of mine), holidays… these are all things that are put on the back burner when you’re pursuing Olympic glory. And missing these things isn’t just hard on the athlete, it strains their relationships, too.

Jared Ward, sixth place finisher at the 2016 Olympic Marathon and his wife, Erica, describe the toll his training took on their relationship.

Jared described, “I felt like when we were dating, it was hard on Erica when I’d travel. And then when we got married, it was hard, again, like another level of it being ‘hard with my spouse being gone’. And then, we had kids, and all of a sudden it was hard on me to be gone.”

His wife described how much the Olympic goal affects their everyday lives, “after the trials, it was like the to-do list never finished. He teaches part-time, and he works out twice a day and lifts three times a week, and has office hours and it’s finals week… and the to-do list got so long.”

Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 4

The Salary Of An Olympian

“No pension plan, no chance of structural income over a longer period of time.” … “I will not have savings until the mortgage of my house is paid off.” … “My parents still have to help me pay for my food.”

You’d think those were comments from today’s middle-class workers. However, these stories of financial woes are coming from some of the best athletes in the world.

It feels like a no-brainer that Olympic athletes would be raking in the dough. I mean, look at those Ralph Lauren uniforms, the top-tier equipment they use, and even those cool recovery tools they use (those recovery space boots aren’t cheap).

However, in a survey of nearly 500 elite athletes from 48 different countries, most of them gearing up for the Olympics later this year, an athletes’ rights group found that 58% said they did not consider themselves financially stable.

Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 5

An even greater number said they did not receive “the appropriate amount of financial compensation” from their national sport federations that send them to these major events or from the International Olympic Committee.

To put it in numerical perspective, over half of elite athletes training for the Olympics live on less than $14,860 per year.

Another survey from Global athlete, which received 491 responses, around 200 of them coming from Olympians and the rest from athletes who have represented their country at other major international events, painted a thorough picture of what it’s really like to be an elite athlete at the highest level: Hardly anyone gets rich, and the most are living below the poverty line.

Some written responses from the survey include:

“Can’t train without funds but trying to get work around training is not easy and continually told if you miss sessions you don’t get selected.”

“No stable job, living off casual work, and supported by my mum. My sport provides no money for me.”

“Paycheck depends on how I preform at a major championships once every 2-4 years. If I do not preform well in one moment I cannot financially support myself.”

Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 6

Winning An Olympic Medal

The only salary an athlete can potentially count on when it comes to the Olympics is by winning a medal.

Every country sets their own financial incentive for winning an Olympic medal, with some being more lucrative than others (and some not even offering anything at all).

For an athlete on Team USA, winning a gold medal will earn them $37,000, a silver will earn $22,500, and a bronze will earn $15,000.

An athlete from Singapore will be extremely pleased to find out they earn $737,000 for gold, $369,000 for silver, and $184,000 for bronze. However, an athlete from Sweden is less fortunate, with there being no financial incentive for any medalist.

It’s important to remember a few things here.

Firstly, although most of these incentives seem like a pretty decent payout for a day’s work. However, it’s not a day’s work. As mentioned earlier, the accumulation of years of financial costs and sacrifices to get to that moment cannot be discounted.

Secondly, it’s not until an athlete achieves those results do they get a payout, there isn’t support for them along the way to get there.

Opinion: World Athletics Is Promising 2024 Olympic Gold Medalists $50,000. That's Not Good Enough 7

The Big Question: Should Olympic Athletes Get Paid?

Although the Olympic Games were initially limited to amateurs, this hasn’t been the case since 1976 to now include professional athletes. So, I think the argument for not paying athletes to “preserve the amateur spirit of the Olympics,” is bogus.

Many Olympians and athletes devote their careers to training and conditioning, which requires significant time, money, and energy. Considering the immense physical, financial, and personal sacrifices these athletes make, fair compensation and greater opportunities to leverage their personal brands could be considered their entitlement. 

The IOC views rules prohibiting athletes from promoting their personal endorsements during the Olympics as necessary to prevent “ambush marketing” against official Olympic sponsors. 

However, such regulations undeniably impede athletes’ financial prospects.

Considering the amount of profit the Olympics make every four years, while limiting athlete’s building their personal brand with certain regulations, wouldn’t it only make sense for Olympians to get some sort of cut?

Although prize money at the Olympics has always been a controversial topic, the level of competition and what it takes to be an Olympian has changed throughout the years, and it’s time for elite athletes to be seen as professionals and compensated as such.

The step taken by World Athletics will not solve the financial woes of Olympians, but it certainly is a step in the right direction.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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