How Olympic athletes make a living

Making green while chasing gold

Outside Magazine Online


Manny Huerta is one of the lucky ones.

For years, after leaving behind a full running scholarship at Florida Atlantic University, Huerta relied on family and friends to help him get by while he chased his triathlon dreams. In May, Huerta qualified for the London Olympics with a nail-biting ninth-place finish at the ITU World Triathlon race in San Diego.

“If it wouldn’t have been for friends and family and supporters, I would have been in a really bad situation,” said Huerta.

An Olympic medal is one of the hardest-earned prizes in the world. Athletes who make it to the games do so after years of sacrifice, hoping that climbing onto the podium will make it all worth it.

Yet, many Olympians never see that work turn into income. And many more, who are tantalizing close to the rings, struggle to simply make ends meet. In triathlon, where training volume can make it impossible to hold down another job, Olympic hopefuls often live with parents or sleep on friends’ couches.

“They probably are losing money on the sport at that stage,” said USA Triathlon Performance Director Andy Schmitz, of up-and-coming athletes. “Probably, the only athletes in the black are those [eight athletes] on the national team.”

Huerta’s parents immigrated to Miami from Cuba when he was 13-years-old and he dreamt of competing for his adopted country. To have a shot at donning red, white, and blue at the Olympics Huerta had to race draft-legal ITU events, instead of the popular Ironman and half-Ironmans.

The International Triathlon Union (ITU) is the body that oversees Olympic racing. ITU races are shorter, faster, and draft-legal, meaning competitors can bike close together in packs. ITU races are also significantly harder to make a living at, because of the heightened competition for smaller prizes, the expensive travel all over the world, and the lack of media and sponsors in the U.S.

“Once every four years, people actually watch and care and talk about it,” said Jarrod Shoemaker, a 2008 U.S. Olympian and president of the newly formed Professional Triathlon Association. “I think it’s a huge problem breaking into the draft-legal side of the sport.”

Where does the money come from?

While no study has been done on how much triathletes make, USA Track and Field Foundation Board Director Jack Wickens did a comprehensive evaluation of track and field athletes’ income – for which there are many similarities.

Wickens found that while it depends on the event – race walkers make nothing, sprints and marathons are the most lucrative – typically the top one or two athletes do extremely well and the top 10 athletes in the world in an event can make up to $100,000 annually. But, runners that are 10th-25th in the world typically “feast or famine,” making $10,000 to $60,000 depending on their year. Athletes outside the top 25 in the world nearly always have another job.

“An awful lot of them never make a good living their entire career,” said Wickens.

Incomes are similar in triathlon; Shoemaker guesses the top 5-10% of professional triathletes make $50,000-$100,000 annually, with a handful of superstars earning significantly more. Chrissie Wellington and Chris McCormack likely make over $1 million per year. Professionals outside the top 5-10% and up-and-coming athletes are lucky to make $20,000, often relying on other income. Schmitz agrees with that assessment.

“The best in the world do very, very well. That drops off very quickly,” said Schmitz. “It’s truly limited to the top half of 1% in the world.”

Top professional triathletes earn money through prize purses and sponsors. Lesser-known or less-connected athletes rely heavily on prize money, which is the same for everyone, while athletes with bigger names can make more from sponsors. Sponsorship money depends on three things said Schmitz: performance, personality, and connections.

Some athletes, like hurdler Lolo Jones, can capitalize on their personality without necessarily having the results to back it up, said Wickens. Some athletes, like Shoemaker, also make connecting with sponsors a priority, said Schmitz.

Most sponsorships, however, come in the form of free product, not money. Because of the lack of information about sponsor contracts and income, athletes can end up undermining each other. One may agree to accept far less from a sponsor than another. Shoemaker believes it’s important for athletes to talk to sponsors, get involved with local brands, and to ask for actual money or bonus schedules from bigger companies.

“It’s easier to get companies to give you stuff. It’s harder to get good money out of companies unless you’re really good,” he said.

‘Without USAT, I wouldn’t be going to the Olympics’

Athletes competing in ITU races are also eligible to receive grants from USAT and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC). The U.S. is one of very few countries with no government support for its Olympic and national team athletes. The USOC, USAT, and other sports’ national bodies, like USA Track and Field, are funded through commercial contracts, such as those with McDonald’s, and through individual fundraising.

In triathlon, athletes can qualify for funding from USAT based on performance. The maximum degree of support a top triathlete could receive, said Schmitz, is a $1,500 per month stipend for living expenses, $1,000 per quarter for performance services such as massage or physical therapy, $4,000 per year for training camps, and $6,000 annually for coaching. Athletes can also receive funding to travel to ITU races. Each allocation must be applied for and vetted and performance criteria must continuously be met.

“It’s a pretty solid basis of support,” said Schmitz.

The USOC also allows athletes with certain qualifications to live at one of the Olympic Training Centers. The degree of access those athletes have to the facilities, training amenities, and room and board depends on the athlete.

“The first couple years that was key,” said Huerta, of living at the Colorado Springs training center after leaving college.

Receiving that full amount of support is rare; those numbers are maximum capped amounts. But, support from USAT and USOC can make the difference between chasing the Olympic dream or competing in more profitable non-drafting races.

“Without USAT, I would not be able to afford to do ITU and wouldn’t be going to the Olympics,” said Sarah Groff, who will be competing for the U.S. at the London games this summer.

Groff still lives with relatives or roommates when she’s in the U.S. The first couple of years, she worked odd jobs or waitressed during the off-season to tide her over between races. Now, though, she’s able to make a decent living, but “not a lot of money,” she said.

Next year, she plans to do more of the non-drafting, big money races like HyVee, with its $1 million prize purse, instead of just focusing on ITU races. “There’s no retirement plan in ITU,” she said

ITU v. non-drafting

Groff could have chosen to focus completely on non-drafting races, but her first coach, Siri Lindley, a two-time ITU World Champion, pushed her towards ITU racing despite some of the financial problems it poses.

There are a couple of challenges for ITU athletes. ITU draft-legal racing is far less popular in the U.S. than in Europe, which means there is less press and fewer sponsors for American ITU athletes.

“ITU’s just kind of out of sight, out of mind,” said Groff.

Prize purses are top-heavy and quickly drop-off in both non-drafting and draft-legal racing. (While first place at the Ironman Championships in Kona takes home $110,000, 10th wins only $6,000 and 11th earns nothing.) But, those prizes can be particularly sparse in ITU racing, with the biggest money in the domestic draft-legal Lifetime series and HyVee races.

Competition in ITU races is also deeper and fiercer, with the best from every country battling it out and places separated by just seconds, said both Groff and Shoemaker.

Additionally, athletes trying to make it on the ITU circuit must spend money upfront to travel to races in Lynga, Norway or Kinloch, New Zealand. Those up-and-coming athletes hope to rack up ITU points, which can earn them spots at more prestigious races and, maybe, Olympic qualification. Travel could eventually be reimbursed by USAT, but typically not until athlete prove themselves.

The alternative for a talented triathlete would be to stick to the lucrative domestic non-drafting and half-Ironman races.

“It’s tough for an athlete to see the chance to make money verse spend money and run around,” said Shoemaker.

You can make money

Although triathletes and runners may not have the $500,000 minimum starting salary of an NBA player, at least there is money to be made in the sport. The U.S. synchronized swim team was featured in Time Magazine for their fundraising swim shows and requirements that many of the swimmers work bingo halls.

A high school classmate of Groff’s made the 2006 Olympic women’s hockey team and took home the silver medal. However, she had to continue working as a teacher up until leaving for the games and came back to work right after. There’s simply no money to be made in women’s hockey.

At least, in triathlon, Groff can make some money.

“You can make lots of money in triathlon,” said Groff. “I’m psyched to be able to do it.”

Making money’s never been a focus for Huerta, who has only a handful of sponsors and lives most of the year with his coach on the side of a volcano in Costa Rica, where it’s cheaper. He’s just happy he’s been one of the lucky ones.

“I can’t wait to get to the Olympics and then back in the U.S.,” he said.

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