Sports

The Olympic Dream: Being a Poor World-Class Athlete

Canadian speed skaters remind the world of the price of the Olympic dream: living below the poverty line.

by Brian Blickenstaff
Jan 5 2015, 3:15pm

Photo by Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

The New Year didn't look like it'd be a happy one for a number of Canadian athletes. Sport Canada, the national body overseeing sports north of the border, cut Speed Skating Canada's budget for the current season by 1 million Canadian, about $849,113 American. To help account for that shortfall, Speed Skating Canada decided to charge athletes a participation fee. The Canadian Press reported that some top athletes had refused to sign their contracts, which included an agreement to pay the fee. (The agreement didn't include the fee amount, but the proposed figure was reportedly 1,200 Canadian, about $1,013 American). In the end, Speed Skating Canada postponed introducing the fee until next winter.

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For a professional athlete, a $1,200 participation fee shouldn't be anything to get too upset about, but that's just the thing: this story isn't just about avoiding a work stoppage for millionaire pros, it's your periodic reminder that most Olympic athletes aren't really pros at all. They may train full time, as professionals do, but financially most of them just barely make it. According to that Canadian Press report, Ivanie Blondin, one of the country's top long-track speed skaters, gets by on a monthly stipend of just 1,500 Canadian per month, about $1,255 American. Skating is her only job.

The situation isn't too much different in the United States. According to the latest analysis by the U.S. Athletic Trust, a non-profit organization that advocates for Olympic-caliber athletes, between 2009 and 2012 the USOC spent just 10.3 percent of its $795,917,076 expense budget on athlete support. If you're an athlete, what that means in terms of dollars-in-pocket depends on your sport and how good you are. If you're a Category 1 bobsledder, defined by the USABS as "2014 Olympic medalists who have committed to the 2014-2015 season and athletes named to USA 1 after National Team Trials," your monthly stipend is between $1,500 and $2,000. In luge, things are much the same: Team A participants make $2,000/month; Team B make $1,000/month. If you're an Olympic medalist, you earn a wage above the poverty line, up to $4,000/month, which is still less than $50,000/year, pre tax—and that's if you win gold. Not exactly Kobe Bryant money.

There are other revenue streams: win bonuses (often in the low thousands) and corporate sponsorships. But not many athletes are able to transcend their sport to the point where they're able to move product. Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps might have enough sponsorship money to swim around in cash Scrooge McDuck-style, but one of the great unifying truths among Olympic athletes is that, if you're going to make it to the games, athletic hustle isn't the only kind of hustle you need.

It's no surprise that U.S. Athletic Trust says most athletes wash out for financial reasons. Just making it to the point where you can get a top-tier stipend represents a life-long investment. For parents, the price of an Olympic dream is well documented. The United States has just one public winter-sports school, recently profiled in Outside Magazine. But even that is only free for in-state students, and it's not an academy: "Unlike private schools, it employs no athletic staff. Instead, students work with trainers and coaches—many of whom stayed in Park City after it hosted the 2002 Olympics—from national organizations or local clubs and pay for their services out of pocket."

The Olympics have a weird magic about them. They cause people to make risky financial decisions in pursuit of a dream. This is certainly true among the citizens of the host cities; the cost of hosting the Olympics is well documented and it is a story that will live on. The episode in Canada is a reminder that it's also true among hopeful athletes, which is the part of the story we face less frequently. It's not just the taxpayers who pay for the Games, it's the athletes, too.