Being an Olympic athlete can lead to a lucrative career — if you’re able to leverage glory into sponsorships.
“While the income of these athletes is paltry in comparison to even the league minimum of football, baseball, whatever, the percentage of their income that is incident to marketing and dependent upon public relations is dramatically higher,” Octagon’s Olympics and Action Sports Managing Director Peter Carlise told Yahoo Finance. “The only source of income for most Olympic athletes is through sponsorship.”
Compensation for winning medals varies by country. The U.S. Olympic Committee pays $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for a silver, and $15,000 for a bronze. Given the cost of training, financial support for athletes needs to come from other places.
“It’s just very risky,” Kelly Clark, a three-time snowboarder medalist and Octagon client, told Yahoo Finance about pursuing a professional career in an Olympic sport. “It’s very fulfilling, but it comes with a lot of risks when you really pursue the life of being a professional athlete because it’s based on performance and your income is based on performance.”
Many athletes are forced to work a second job. At one point, in the 2000s, Olympic sponsor Home Depot organized a part-time employment program for athletes that included flexible hours for training and a salary of about $25,000.
‘Strike while the iron is hot’
Carlisle, who helps athletes connect with brands for sponsorships, has spent more than two decades representing Olympians. When he entered the industry in the 1990s, many athletes weren’t competing in more than one Olympics because they didn’t have the financial support to sustain the lifestyle.
That has since changed: Athletes now build up their personal brands to support multiple Olympic runs. For high-profile athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps or speed skater Apolo Ohno, the advertising campaigns usually begin about two years before the games and serve as a full-time job along with training.
“You really kind of try to strike while the iron is hot for as many opportunities as you can after you do well,” Clark said. “You kind of just put the pedal to the metal and hammer out as many opportunities as you can because realistically there is a really big lull between the games.”
In 2002, Clark deferred her freshman year of college to bet on one final chance at becoming a full-time professional snowboarder. She won gold in the halfpipe, capturing the first gold medal of Salt Lake 2002 for Team USA. The morning after, the 18-year-old walked by a newsstand and saw herself splattered across every newspaper’s front page.
“I remember thinking ‘I have no idea what I got myself into,’” Clark said. “That was the moment it really hit me what a big deal this was.”
Clark had entered the crucial 48-hour period following an Olympic medal, which can make or break how much America remembers an athlete before viewers begin adoring the next gold medalist.
“It’s almost like if you build it, they will come,” Carlisle explained. “The focus is on the PR and then with it, the commercial opportunities will come and you can focus on those.”
For Clark, the next 11 days were spent traveling between cities: She sat down with late-night talk show hosts David Letterman and Jay Leno, attended the Daytona 500, and even got to meet Brittney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
Those moments became the launching pad for her career. Clark, now 38, retired from pro snowboarding in 2019 after a 20-year collaboration with Burton Snowboards. She’s written her own book, started a non-profit, and partnered with other companies such as Bose and Kellogg’s.
“If I didn’t have the season that I had in ’02, I don’t think I would’ve been able to pursue this,” Clark said.