The high cost of going for Olympic gold

Athletes at the 2018 Winter Olympics face barriers to financial health

Bobsled at the Winter Olympics

Nearly 3,000 top athletes from 92 countries are converging on PyeongChang, South Korea to ski, skate, sled, and curl their way to Olympic gold and glory. In addition to medals, some athletes will walk away with lucrative sponsorships. But others will return to part-time jobs, unemployment, modest stipends, and other financial situations that don’t make it on the front of a Wheaties box.

Unfortunately, gold, silver, and bronze don’t always translate to enough green for athletes to stay solvent. While medals often come with cash prizes — a gold medal will net a U.S. competitor $37,500 — these awards are only for a handful of individuals in each sport, and they pale in comparison to the funds needed to become a world-class contender. The prices of training, equipment, travel, healthcare, and other expenses add up for those competing at a global level. The high costs become particularly pronounced when you consider the increased likelihood of injuries, the difficulty of holding a full-time job while on a rigorous training schedule, and the fact that most sports only have a narrow window of time when athletes can compete in their prime.

As a result of these substantial costs, many of the world’s top athletes may be physically healthy, but they aren’t financially healthy. In the U.S., many Olympians struggle to get by. Some have even had to apply for food stamps or start GoFundMe pages to make their Olympic dreams come true. Being an elite athlete doesn’t just take skill and training, it takes a meaningful investment in financial health and the ability to manage an unsteady income between payouts and sponsorships.

As outlined in the report, “Beyond Financial Inclusion: Financial Health as a Global Framework,” the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion found that individuals are financially healthy when they:

  • Balance income and expenses
  • Build and maintain reserves
  • Manage existing debts and have access to potential resources
  • Plan and prioritize
  • Manage and recover from financial shocks
  • Use an effective range of financial tools

Planning for the future and balancing income and expenses are challenging with inconsistent paychecks and the possibility of a shock from an injury perpetually looming.

In many ways, the barriers elite athletes face as they try to maintain financial health are quite common. The world’s fastest, strongest, and best champions join the ranks of others around the globe — including smallholder farmers, microentrepreneurs, and migrant workers — in navigating unsteady income, limited resources, and potential shocks.

As we watch these talented athletes give their best during the PyeongChang Olympics, let’s remember that no matter where someone is from or what they have in life, we all have a shared responsibility to build a better world. Access to the best financial services and education can give people — from farmers to speed skaters — the tools they need to take control of their lives and follow their dreams.

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