Roughly 10,500 athletes will vie for 126 medals at this summer’s Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. And despite full-time training and travel schedules, many athletes on the U.S. team live close to the poverty line. Team USA estimates that the average American Olympian earns $20,000 a year.
That might be because, unlike other nations, the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) receives no government funding. It still pays bonuses to medalists—$25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze. But that’s pocket change compared to Italy or the Ukraine, which pay $182,400 and $100,000 for gold, respectively. Plus, the IRS takes a hefty cut: about $9,000 for a gold medal.
Even beyond the Games, prize money is rare. When it does come along, it doesn’t add up to much. Jamaican Usain Bolt, six-time gold medalist, is the world’s biggest rockstar in track and field. He earned $21 million last year: $15,000 in winnings, the rest from paid appearances and endorsements. But committees like the USOC and the International Association of Athletics Federations severely restrict such relationships.
American runner Nick Symmonds famously took to eBay to sell advertising space on his arm for $11,100—but he must cover up at official events, precisely where sponsors care most about logo visibility.
In 2012, steeplechase champion Ben Bruce told CNN that when times are lean, he’s not above taking part-time gigs like delivering pizzas. “When I would file taxes at the end of the year, I wasn’t making more than $10,000,” he says. These days, Team USA is banking on its new crowdfunding site to supplement wages—registry.teamusa.org.