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How Olympic Athletes Fund their Dream (and Support Themselves)

How do Olympic athletes make a living? Most are not wealthy, and most have to fund their own training.

I think many of us tend to assume that anyone who has a show on television, stars in a movie, or who competes in sports at the Olympic level is “wealthy”.

US Girls Olympic Team hugging, text overlay "how olympic athletes fund training"

Perhaps they don't have the type of home that can be showcased in MTV's Cribs, but it's not a stretch to assume that they can at least purchase a car outright, plunk down as much money as their latte habits demand, and generally enjoy life.

The limelight is glamorous and the people in the limelight are glamorous-looking…so the money must be flowing, right?

Unfortunately, it seems that Olympians who also happen to be wealthy are the exception, not the rule.

To make it to the Olympics, one must be singular in their focus almost to the point of obsession.

This is to the detriment of most other things in life, including money – both earning money, which takes your focus off of training, and accumulating money, as the little earnings Olympians and Olympian hopefuls make on the side are spent on things like equipment, trainers, travel, and coaching.

Pssst: here's even more Olympics inspiration to help you meet your own life and money goals.

The majority of Olympians must train for so many hours during the day to earn their spot in such an elite category of athletes that they only have time for part-time work.

Some do not work at all because their focus is so singular and their drive is so intense that they simply choose to not take time away from their dream.

Take Steve Prefontaine for an example. Leading up to the 1972 Olympics he was receiving food stamps and splitting $15 rent with another roommate (this was before Olympic athletes were allowed to accept endorsements). The Track and Field Association recently surveyed its top athletes and found that 50% of track and field athletes who ranked in the top ten make less than $15,000 per year.

2012 Olympic athlete Cyrus Hostetler (javelin thrower) states on his personal website, “Sometimes the competition that I face is not the competition on the track but rather the competition of finances, and every year it's a losing battle. When you total up all the costs of coaching, trainers, medical, equipment, and travel expenses my monthly paycheck just doesn't add up.” He made a total of $2,273 for throwing a javelin in 2011.

How Do Olympic Athletes Support Themselves?

We all need money to live on and $2,273 a year or even $15,000 a year is typically not going to cut it. So how do Olympic athletes (the ones without the huge endorsements and 16 gold medals) make ends meet?

1. Hold Down a Part Time Job

I think the key with any passion is to make money from that passion, to make money from working in a field as close to the passion as you can get, or to find a flexible job that will allow you to spend as much time as possible pursuing your passion on the side.

Cyrus Hostetler is a website/graphic designer for the 2012 US Olympic Trials Track and Field project management team.

This allows him to train 4-6 hours every day, work on the logistics of sports he loves, and still earn a living to pay his bills. Swimmer Amanda Beard has been modeling since she was 16 and continues to do so in addition to the book she wrote and her motivational speaking engagements. 

Even Prefontaine worked for a short while at Nike (before it took off).

I think the key with any passion is to make money from that passion. Click To Tweet

2. Share Living Arrangements

Olympians and Olympian hopefuls make many sacrifices in order to fund their dreams.

One of them often includes living on their own. It is typical for an Olympic athlete to share living arrangements with others.

While some athletes like Prefontaine informally seek roommates to share the rent, others live with host families while they train.

I found one ad on Craigslist looking for host families (Salt Lake area) for the 2012-2013 hockey season for Regulators Hockey. The specifications are to provide a good environment, furnished room, nourishing meals, car rides to practices, a bathroom, and laundry facilities.

Host families for this organization are given a $400 per month stipend. A quick Swagbucks internet search shows that there are many organizations and athletes looking for host families during training events.

3. Raise Money

Some athletes hold fundraisers in order to help fund their athletic training and travel.

  • Olympic hopeful Nick Symmonds (800-meter run) auctioned his left shoulder on eBay for the top bid of $11,100 (Hanson Dodge Creative).
  • Rose Wetzle and Falesha Ankton hosted a fundraiser for themselves at a local cocktail bar with drink specials, a ring toss, and a raffle.
  • Cyrus Hostetler solicits donations and contributions on his personal website. In his blog he details his financial situation and states that he only makes money from winning prizes, so “this makes the time between big competitive meets financially hard”. Norris Frederick auctioned himself off as a celebrity date.
  • In 2005, Adam Nelson successfully auctioned a $12,000 sponsorship on eBay.

4. Accept Government Assistance

As far as direct help from the government, US Olympians are out of luck. Many other nations do provide money to their top athletes.

For example, in the UK there is funding from the government as well as the lottery. In Indonesia, the government supports their Olympic athletes while they train and perform, and in China and Korea, Olympic medalists are given pensions and other retirement assistance.

Many countries have pledged money to various levels of medal winners, just like the prize money awarded to American medalists.

Other lotteries such as the South African lottery and EuroMillions lottery also help fund Olympic athletes.

5. Source Funds from the US Olympic Committee (USOC)

The USOC is a non-profit organization that serves as the national Olympic committee in the United States.

Funded by private contributions, corporate sponsorships, and the International Olympic Committee, the USOC provides training centers, funds, and support staff to elite athletes.

For example, the US Rowing Association received $1.2 million for its 2012 Olympic team. Women on the US Rowing team receive between $400-$800 a month stipends from this money to help cover bills.

6. Receive Prize Money

In 1997 the IAAF created the IAAF Competition Awards to continue their quest to financially motivate and secure athletes at the highest level.

The USOC also offers the following prize money: $25,000 to gold medal winners, $15,000 to those who take home a silver and $10,000 for a bronze. Some private sponsors offer incentive-based prize money.

An example of this is Speedo’s promise of $1 million to Michael Phelps in 2008 if he met Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals.

7. Funding through Associations that Collect Membership Fees

Associations of more popular sports, such as USA Swimming, can afford to fund their Olympic athletes through membership fees that hobbyists and professionals pay.

For example, the USA Swimming Association pays a $3,000 monthly stipend to National Team Members ranked 16th or higher.

8. Score an Endorsement

The list is pretty large in terms of which companies will sponsor winning Olympic athletes or Olympic hopefuls.

Probably one of the most extreme examples of endorsements is when Luge racer Fuahea Semi legally changed his name to German Underwear and swimsuit company Bruno Banani.

It should be noted that sponsorships and endorsements tend to follow the more popular sports (sorry steeplechase Olympic athletes, I think you are out of luck on getting a cereal box deal).

What I love about this is that many people have found a way to pursue their passion and still survive financially.

What makes me sad is to think of all of the stories that have not been written about the athletes who have been unsuccessful in funding their dreams. I think this happens in many professions from artists and writers to athletics and theater. However, I am a believer that where there is a will, there is a way. Let’s hope we all find our way, just as these Olympic athletes have done.

How do Olympic athletes make a living so that they can make it to the Olympics games? Athletes generally have to live very frugally in order to fund their training – at least until they make it to the big time. We’ll look at examples of how athletes made a living and funded their dreams for both the winter Olympics and the summer Olympics. #olympics #moneygoals #inspirational
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Amanda L Grossman

Personal Finance Writer and CEO at Frugal Confessions, LLC
Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here or on LinkedIn.


Thursday 30th of June 2022

Hello, don’t know where to start. My son Kentrell Rouser, 19, needs a sponsorship program or grant to cover his expenses while he takes off work to train for the golden gloves.

Charles Dicken Olupot

Monday 4th of April 2022

Am a retired but not tired Ugandan teacher who has a school for the less fortunate children in my village. There are five hundred children in the school. school needs furniture, uniforms, scholastic materials and food. Am appealing for each child £ 20 for the three month time.Thank you for your love and action towards us in Eastern Uganda. In Him, Charles Dicken Olupot


Thursday 2nd of December 2021

I am Ethiopia citizens I have been little base athletic so that my dream athletic

Ana Raquel F.

Tuesday 25th of August 2015

I was thinking about this topic today, I do think that the athletes have to really demand not just the USOC but their own federations to help them fund their expenses because they cost a lot of money. They represent the U.S. so they deserve to be helped, many haven't demanded any financial help yet before they go to the Olympics and thus their federations think they don't need assistance. I think they are not treated fairly at all,the athletes have to make a living too and many don't work to train for a country that doesn't reward them for their efforts. It is not worth training like that. They should all gather together and write petitions and letters to their federations demanding financial help and also from the USOC. The USGF doesn't help anymore gymnasts before they go to the OLympics,Gabby Douglas and her family were on food stamps and went completely broke because the USGF didn't help her financially,figure skaters are not helped at all for competing in their disciplines. The federations don't value their efforts and wash their hands-they think it's not their responsability to help them-yet it is. In my country (Panama)athletes are given a small scholarship mpney $200-3000 a month for several years,when they reach the excellent status they stop receiving $200.US dollars a month and receive from $400 to $3000 a month depending on the medals they have received in latin american and international competitions and the Olympic winners are given a $2000 a month job to work as ambassadors of their sport.In the US,this must not be much much at least they get funds that can help them a bit with their finances before the Olympics Game. IN England,gymnast stay for free for several years to train for the OLympics ,such as the case in China too..why can't that happen in the US?


Wednesday 12th of February 2014

Regarding accepting government sponsorship, it's true that a lot of athletes in other countries have it easier. In China and parts of Asia, the government practically funds all those national sports teams. So to Chinese athletes, being in the Olympics is just part of their job.