Historical records indicate that the first ancient Olympic Games were held in 776 BC. The games were dedicated to the Olympian gods and held on the ancient plains of Olympia. Linked to religious festivals, the Olympic Games were also intended to show the physical prowess of the athletes and to promote good relations between the cities of Greece. The Olympic victor would receive a palm branch in his hands, and red ribbons were tied to his hands and feet as a sign of victory. On the final day of the games, the Olympic winner would be crowned with the sacred olive tree wreath, and his name, his father's name and his homeland would be proudly announced at the closing ceremony. (For more on current Olympic athletes, check out Olympic Athletes: Back To Reality.)
TUTORIAL: Economics Basics
Centuries ago, the greatest prize that was awarded to victorious Olympians was honor. Acclaimed as heroes, the athletes were a great source of pride to their families and homelands. Today's Olympians remain a source of national pride, and their achievements are often rewarded with more than the coveted Olympic gold medals. Depending on an athlete's sport, the country he or she represents, and his or her own marketability, bringing home a gold medal can lead to big changes in the athlete's financial situation.
The ancient Olympic Games were a one-day event that included running, long jump, shot put, javelin, boxing, pankration (a primitive form of martial arts that combined wrestling and boxing) and equestrian events. The modern Olympics include 43 different sports and nearly 400 events, with more than 16,000 athletes from around the world competing during each Olympic cycle, which includes both Summer and Winter Games.
Athletes who compete in the most popular and widely publicized sports will have the best chance of scoring big sponsorship and endorsement deals. Shaun White, for example, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, having won the men's snowboard half-pipe competition in Torino in 2006 and again in Vancouver during 2010. Relatively new to the Olympics, men's half-pipe happens to be a widely watched and highly marketable sport, and one that taps the young adult market; all of this helped White pull in nearly $8 million in 2010 through sponsorships, prize money and endorsements. Gold medalists in the lesser-known and publicized sports, such as curling, do not often fare as well financially as those competing in the mainstream sports. (For more on athletes who risked their financial futures, read Stupid Athletes' Moves That Threatened Their Fortunes.)
A sport can be regarded differently around the world. In Slovakia, for instance, Michal Martikan, is a household name. He won four Olympic medals – two golds and two silvers – in the 1996 Atlanta Games, and along with teammates Pavol Hochschorner, Peter Hochschorner and Elena Kaliska, he brought home more gold medals during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. However, these Slovakian athletes were not competing in one of the "big" sports. Rather, they competed in whitewater slalom canoeing, a sport that is a source of national pride for Slovakia. Though these athletes don't bring in the same type of endorsement deals as Shaun White (not many do), they do receive more money from their country and through endorsements than some whitewater slalom athletes from countries where the sport is not as popular.
Athletes who are attractive, personable and who have an interesting life story may be able to sign better endorsement deals than those who are, well, regular, for lack of a better word. Speed skater Apolo Ohno, for example, who is the most decorated American Winter Olympian to date, fares well financially not only for his athletic records, but for his interesting life story and his endearing (and winning) 2007 appearance on ABC's celebrity dance competition, "Dancing With the Stars." Ohno has a long list of sponsors including McDonald's, General Electric, Vicks and Coca-Cola.
The Bottom Line
It is said that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to achieve mastery or true expertise in an activity. Athletes who train for the Olympic Games dedicate considerable portions of their lives to training, competing, traveling and recovering in the hopes of winning gold. The athletes and their families must make sacrifices, particularly in terms of money and time, in order to have a chance at the Olympic dream. Some countries provide athletes with a monthly stipend – such as Canada's $1,500 month payment to athletes from Sport Canada - and many athletes are able to find additional sponsorships and endorsements. Out of the 16,000 or so athletes who compete every four years in the Olympics, only a very small number will earn a gold medal, and even fewer will strike it rich with significant sponsorships and endorsements. (Even when athletes do achieve greatness and financial success, it does not mean it will last forever. For more info, read 7 Costly Pro Athlete Screw-Ups.)