Going for Gold: The True Cost of Being a World-Class Athlete

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Going for Gold: The True Cost of Being a World-Class Athlete


For a few weeks every four years, the world watches with bated breath as the Summer Olympic Games unfold. The games provide a perfect show of athleticism and showmanship, making for great entertainment.

But for the athletes, it's more than just a game. It's a chance at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

While many people are familiar with the high stakes and level of commitment it takes from the athletes to make it to the Olympic Games, there's one area we don't hear about as often -- how expensive it is to pursue the dream of going for the gold.

Many countries provide financial support for their athletes; however, Olympic athletes representing the United States don't receive any direct financial support from the federal government.

How much does it cost to be a world-class athlete?

World-class athletes dedicate their whole lives to their craft. In order to make it to the top, they require consistent training, coaching, a specialized diet, equipment and more.

According to Mary Saxer, a professional pole vaulter who became the 2012 U.S. Olympic team alternate and 2014 U.S. indoor champion, the financial cost of chasing qualification for the games can vary widely by athlete and sport - and some athletes get paid a lot more than others.

For example, according to a 2012 Forbes report, the top 20 highest paid Olympic athletes earned $448 million collectively between July 2011 and July 2012. Basketball and tennis players made up nine of the top 10.

But Saxer's income pales in comparison to fellow track star Usain Bolt (the seventh-highest paid Olympic athlete in Forbes' findings; he earned $20.3 million between July 2011 and July 2012).

In addition to low pay, Saxer can attest that expenses can add up quickly for pole vaulters.

"One of the biggest expenses for pole vaulters is the cost of traveling with our equipment. Every time we fly with our poles to a competition, it costs $75 to $300 one-way," she says.

That's in addition to the cost of the flight. Not only that, but Saxer typically also has to rent a car to transport her poles, as poles can be as long as 16 feet and many taxis and shuttles won't allow poles to be strapped on their vehicles.

Aside from transporting her equipment, there's the actual costs of poles, which she says can cost between $400 to $800 a pop -- and Saxer owns around 30 poles.

Saxer has a pole sponsor that provides some financial assistance, but she says not all athletes are as lucky.

Additional costs of pursuing her dream of a gold medal include paying for her coach -- as well as his travel -- and keeping a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables and protein.

Saxer says, "It's difficult to be frugal and get the proper nutrients, but it's a cost I deem vital in my Olympic pursuit."

Other sports are quite costly as well. According to a 2012 New York Times report, the parents of Olympic athlete Missy Franklin spent about $100,000 on swimming-related costs in 2012 alone.

Eric Flaim, a U.S. speed skater told MarketWatch that he estimates his decade-long training and competition costs to be roughly $250,000. In some cases, these strenuous financial costs can put the parents of athletes at risk of bankruptcy or foreclosure.

How Athletes Earn Money

The intense training, travel and competitions make going for the gold a full-time job.

"It's next to impossible to hold down a part-time job, let alone full time," says pole vaulter Katie Nageotte, who ranked fourth at the 2015 Masters Outdoor Championships, making her an alternate for the 2015 world championship team.

Being a world-class athlete isn't just a costly endeavor; it doesn't promise the big bucks, either. According to the Track and Field Athletes Association, about half of athletes who rank in the U.S. top 10 for their event make an annual income of less than $15,000.

This is a fraction of what other professional athletes can make. In 2016, the average annual salary for major league baseball players is $4.38 million, whereas basketball players in the NBA earned an average of $4.9 million in the 2013 season.

Top athletes aren't promised a big pay day, either. Prize money for the 2015 USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships ranged from $500 for 8th place to up to $7,000 for 1st place.

If you're talented enough to win a gold, silver or bronze medal in your field, you'll receive between $10,000 and $25,000 from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Contrast this to Russia, who paid its medal-winning athletes up to $135,000 for a gold medal in the 2012 Olympic Games.

But money isn't what motivates Saxer, or many of her peers. "You pursue the Olympic dream for the love of the sport -- not to get rich," Saxer says.

Many athletes rely on sponsorships, competition money, and family and friends to survive. After reaching a certain level of success, Saxer acquired a few sponsorships, which help support her financial costs. But all of it's contingent on her performance.

"If I don't maintain a high level of performance, the amounts I receive can be lowered at any time," she says.

Aside from her sponsorship deals and competition income, Saxer says she receives about $3,000 to $10,000 per year from USA Track and Field, the nonprofit national organization that governs track and field in the U.S.

How Athletes Live Frugally

Athletes who dream of competing for a medal have to watch their budget carefully and make their dollars stretch, as they aren't guaranteed an income.

Luckily, Saxer is frugal by nature. Her husband works full time in finance and is able to provide stability in her life, but she doesn't rely on his income for pole vaulting-related expenses.

Saxer employs the power of community to lower her costs - often staying at other vaulters' houses when she travels for competitions. The community also helps each other with transportation, and any free rides or meals are accepted graciously. One of her colleagues saves money by hunting and fishing for all of his own food.

Because training and traveling are so intense -- and the cost is so high -- athletes may skip out on other luxuries. "A lot of the vaulters tend to go without personal vacations and skip out on many of the luxuries in life, but vaulters are still generally happy people without these luxuries," Saxer says.

Bottom Line

Pursuing dreams of a gold medal can be pricey, both financially and emotionally. But through all the expenses and hard times, some athletes know how to be resourceful and get the most bang for their buck.

"The life of an elite pole vaulter is the essence of the word 'frugal' -- yet extremely fulfilling. It's certainly not a lifestyle for everyone and not a career you pursue to get rich," Saxer says.

About the Author: Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer and editor currently living in Portland, Oregon. She is passionate about education, financial literacy and empowering people to take control of their finances. Her work has been featured on Rockstar Finance, GoGirl Finance, The Globe and Mail and more.

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