If you kept tabs on the Vancouver Olympic games, which wrapped up on Sunday, you were probably inspired and awed by some of the great athletes you saw. Surely participating in the Olympics must set you up on the fast track to fame and fortune! But although the Olympic event is very well polished, life for many Olympic athletes is much less posh than you might imagine - and for some it's downright tough. With the Winter Olympics nearing a close, many Olympic athletes are returning to everyday life, away from the lights, glamour, and the funding of corporate sponsors. And the reality that awaits Olympic athletes can vary greatly depending not only on their performance in the Olympic games, but also on the countries they represent.
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Many U.S. Olympic athletes are well funded thanks to strong college-level support for many Olympic sports combined with high-paying sponsorship deals. In fact, most of the highest paid Olympic athletes are American. U.S. snowboarder Shaun White and alpine skier Lindsey Vonn have multimillion dollar endorsement deals to look forward to. White earned a gold medal in Vancouver in the halfpipe snowboarding event, and reportedly earns more than $8 million dollars a year from endorsement deals and corporate sponsorships. Vonn has already graced the cover of Sports Illustrated and earned more than $3 million last year but, thanks to her new Olympic gold medal and her high-profile attempt at five events in Vancouver, she is expected to earn even more in 2010.
Kim Yu-Na, the Olympic gold medal figure skater from South Korea, reportedly earns $8 million. Her status as a national icon - "the Ice Queen" - in her home country allows her to cash in on sponsorship deals from Hyundai (OTCBB:HYMLF), Samsung, Nike (NYSE:NKE) and Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), among others. Alpine skier Maria Riesch also makes the list of well-compensated athletes, bringing in $1 million per year.
Many of the other athletes who were in the public eye in Vancouver are not so fortunate and will just be getting by until the next Olympics. The struggling athletes who have received the most press are those of the host country. This is because most Canadian athletes are not fully sponsored like their counterparts in China, Germany and Russia, which sponsor their athletes year round. They also are less likely to receive the high-paying corporate sponsorships their American adversaries thrive on. This means that many Canadian athletes have to work year-round and are not able to train full time like other Olympic competitors. Once the Olympics are over, most Canadian athletes lose their sponsors and government funding from Sport Canada. Plus, even when they are sponsored, the maximum grant for Canadian athletes under the federal Athlete Assistance Program is $18,000 per year. Because of the huge financial burden that comes with Olympic participation, The Canadian Athletes Now Fund (CAN) estimates that 70% of Canadian amateur athletes live below the poverty live.
Athletes like 39-year-old Canadian skeleton racer Jeff Pain have spoken openly about living on government assistance and pawning watches, tools and kitchenware to raise money for basic necessities such as rent, food, and clothing. He's also paid for training equipment, supplies and travel expenses out of his own pocket.
Team Canada bobsledder Helen Upperton told the Toronto Star in February, "We don't have jobs. We don't have savings. We don't have anything. We are going to be halfway through our lives with nothing. We start with zero. We give our life to our country in our sport, to make our country proud. When you stop and retire, it's scary. It's like, Aw, man, what am I going to do?" Upperton won a silver medal in this year's Olympic games and has competed in the Olympics since 2000.
Some athletes are truly underfunded on all levels. Take the three-person winter Olympic contingent from India, who arrived in Vancouver without Olympic opening ceremonies attire - and for the luger of the contingent, without a sled (it had broken a few months earlier in practice). Luckily, members of Vancouver's Indian community stepped up to outfit these athletes for the games, but the situation for Indian athletes in winter sports is unlikely to change any time soon because there just isn't enough interest in these sports in India.
Don't assume that once an athlete reaches the pinnacle that is the Olympic games, his or her life will hit easy street. Even winning a medal is no guarantee of financial success; Olympic athletes have to medal in the "right" sports. A gold medal in snowboarding or skiing has the potential to bring millions of endorsement dollars with it, whereas a medal in skeleton or bobsledding will have Olympic glory as its sole payoff.