Getting to the Olympic Games is an expensive feat, and even those who win rarely become rich doing so.
Team USA Olympian Brittney Reese competes in the long jump tomorrow in Tokyo—tonight on American TV screens—as she looks to qualify for the finals in the event on Tuesday. It will likely be the last long-jump competition of the four-time Olympian’s career, capping a years-long grind familiar to most independent Olympic contenders.
Reese, who won gold in 2012 and silver in 2016, has gotten to this point by sticking to a grueling regimen and making many sacrifices over the years. Most days, she would wake up at 8 a.m. to drop off her 13-year-old son (whom she adopted when he was 8) at school and then head back home before hitting the track for a four-hour practice. By afternoon, she was working various side hustles that helped pay the bills: flipping homes as part of her small real estate business, training kids in track and field, and assistant-coaching part time at San Diego Mesa College.
“The hardest part is just learning how to balance everything with being a mom, being an athlete, being a businesswoman and being a coach,” says Reese. Back when she was in the prime of her career, she had a Nike contract that paid her $100,000 a year plus bonuses tied to her performance. Now, likely past her peak at 34, Reese has seen her contract numbers dwindle. She still has a Nike deal but says it’s much smaller than the previous one (she says she can’t confirm the details because of an NDA in her contract). “If I didn’t have that Nike contract, it’s extra tough,” says Reese, who also received a $35,000 grant in 2019 from the USATF Foundation. “I would have to have a [full-time] job and try to train.”
While athletes from some countries can land sizable sums when they win—Singapore will pay about $740,000 for a gold medal, $370,000 for a silver and $180,000 for a bronze—for most U.S. athletes, chasing Olympic glory is no way to earn a decent living. If Reese does win gold in the women’s long-jump competition, she will leave with a $37,500 check from the U.S. Olympic Committee. A silver would bring $22,000, and a bronze $15,000. Anything less, and she won’t bring home a dime. According to Reese, she spends roughly $25,000 a year to train for the Olympics.
“Most of our [athletes] make less than $50,000 a year, and for many, much less than that,” says Tom Jackovic, CEO of the USATF Foundation, which connects track-and-field athletes pursuing their Olympic dreams with private cash grants. It gave out 115 such grants this year. “I don’t know what they spend, but they’re not well off. They’re doing it for the love of sport, that’s for sure.”
Of course, some Tokyo competitors—like Naomi Osaka and Kevin Durant—are already among the world’s highest-paid athletes. Others, such as gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky, who won gold at previous Olympics, secured millions of dollars in endorsements ahead of these Games. Forbes estimates that Biles brought in $5 million in endorsement earnings this past year thanks to deals with sponsors like Athleta, Core Power and Visa while Ledecky got an estimated $3 million from sponsors that include Adidas, Ralph Lauren and Hershey’s Reese’s brand.
“Most of our [athletes] make less than $50,000 a year, and for many, much less than that. … They’re doing it for the love of sport, that’s for sure.”
But Biles and Ledecky were two of the most famous faces coming into the Games. There are more than 11,000 athletes, including more than 600 from the U.S., competing for 339 gold medals this year, most of them cobbling together financial support from prize money, equipment subsidies, hard-won endorsement deals and a smattering of highly competitive private grants. In 2016, more than 140 athletes used GoFundMe campaigns to raise a combined $750,000 as a way of covering their costs, which for some included not only the cost of getting to Brazil but also a year’s worth of trainers, facilities, physical therapy, medical care and nutrition, plus the lost hours of paid work to allow for enough time to train.
While there are no current numbers on how much Olympians make on average, a 2011 study gives some perspective. According to that study by Jack Wickens, the founder of consulting service AthleteBiz and former vice chair of the USATF Foundation, roughly 50% of Team USA track-and-field athletes who ranked in the top ten in their event nationally made less than $15,000 annually between their prize money, sponsorships and contracts. According to that study, the latest of its kind, jumpers like Reese who were ranked between No. 10 and No. 25 worldwide were expected to earn $10,000 to $35,000 annually. Wickens, reached by email in July, has not updated his research in a decade. However, not much has changed for athletes, according to one source, especially those like Reese who compete in field events. And this year, athletes faced another challenge with fewer opportunities to compete because of the pandemic, meaning less opportunities to win prize money, earn performance bonuses or score a sponsorship.
For athletes like Reese, even the time-tested path to sporting riches—sponsorships and endorsements—offers little to count on.
“I think there aren’t a lot of opportunities domestically to make a living or an income,” the USATF Foundation’s Jackovic says. “There’s just not that many means here in the U.S. You typically have to travel to Europe or elsewhere to compete to make money.”
With many elite meets taking place overseas, international travel is a regular part of the job for Team USA shot putter and two-time world champion Joe Kovacs. Traveling to competitions outside the U.S. typically costs athletes between $2,000 and $3,000, depending on the location, in travel expenses, lodging and food. With a first-place finish in the Diamond League—an annual series of international track competitions—track stars can bring in $10,000 before taxes and the fees for agents and personal coaches.
“If you were not good enough to medal or win the Diamond League along the way, you would spend way more than you’d ever get to win the Olympics,” says Kovacs.
As a shot putter, Kovacs clinched the gold standard of sponsorships when he inked a Nike contract in 2012. Although he declined to comment on his contract terms, he notes that landing a Nike deal doesn’t mean the end of financial struggles, especially since base contracts can change year to year and are not guaranteed. The 32-year-old took a more entrepreneurial when he left Nike in 2017 to sign with Velaasa, a specialty athletic clothing and equipment company; he negotiated an equity stake that has given him about a quarter of the business. “As cool as it is to build that [base salary], it can all go away at the end of the contract terms,” Kovacs says. A spokesperson for Nike said the company does not comment on athlete contracts.
There is one silver lining these days: There are increasingly opportunities for social-media-savvy athletes to fill in the gaps. One Olympian who is tapping into his social media following is swimmer Ryan Murphy, who won three gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics and has a silver and a bronze in Tokyo. The 26-year-old, who has 136,000 Instagram followers, posts ads regularly for his sponsors. That includes Bridgestone Tires, Goldfish Swim School, Eli Lilly and Tonal, which provides him equipment for training at home, as well as Speedo, which supplies him with swimsuits, uniforms and caps. While he wouldn’t disclose his earnings, social media and marketing consultancy Influence & Co. says a personality with that kind of audience could expect to receive anywhere from $50 to $1,000 per post depending on the level of engagement the post receives. “With the rise of social media, there’s opportunities to make money off your sport now that aren’t directly tied to performance,” Murphy says.
Kovacs also uses social media and appears in posts and videos with his wife, who doubles as his coach, that reach 56,000 followers. That has likely helped him attract new sponsors. He signed deals with Duluth Trading Company in 2020 and Rogue Fitness in 2021, which are helping support his Olympic dreams without the need for a side job.
“There’s no way I could be the best in the world if this is not all I was doing,” Kovacs says. “If you expect us to break the world record or be the best in the world or win the Olympic gold medal, it takes every moment of every single day.”
For Reese, the financial side of competing comes with a different kind of calculation.
“For me, it is just the love of the sport,” she says. “I love the event that I’m participating in, the long jump, so there’s no reason for me to worry about compensation because this is something that I love to do.”
The Lucky Few
For most American athletes, a trip to the Olympics is an expensive venture. But for the elite who emerge as the faces of the Games, winning is a path to lucrative endorsement deals.
Annual Endorsement Earnings: $5 Million
Partners: Athleta, SK-II, Visa, United, Mondelez/Oreo, Core Power, Candid, GK Elite, Spieth America, Uber Eats, Masterclass, Facebook Watch, GOAT Tour
Annual Endorsement Earnings: $3 Million
Partners: TYR, Adidas, American Girl, Hershey/Reese’s, Built (with Chocolate Milk), Panasonic, Ralph Lauren, Visa, Oura Ring, BIC
Annual Endorsement Earnings: $5 Million
Partners: TOGETHXR, AT&T, Coca-Cola, iFit, Mattel, Michelob Ultra, Nike, P&G/Secret, SKIMS, VW, Beats By Dre, Gogo SqueeZ, Hublot, Just Live, Molecule, Mueller, Stella & Chewy’s
Annual Endorsement Earnings: $1 Million
Partners: AT&T, CarMax, Glossier, Mendi, Moet Hennessy USA Inc., Nike, Quickbooks, Symetra, Tonal, Amalgamated Bank, TOGETHXR
Reporting By Justin Birnbaum.