All gold medals are equal, but some gold medals are more equal than others—and are a lot more lucrative. Olympians, of course, compete for glory, but for a tiny few, there’s also the promise of a big payday. Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete of all time, is worth an estimated $55 million, and gymnastics phenomenon Simone Biles, at her first games, has earned a reported $2 million from competitions and for image as she leaps off the edge of boxes of Special K Red Berries.
But what can medaled athletes outside the superstar realm of swimming, gymnastics, and track and field—who’ve also put in the same dedication, practice hours, and years of miserable hotel rooms—expect? Basically, bubkas. OK, not entirely true: The United States Olympic Committee gives medal bonuses—$25,000 for each gold, $15,000 for each silver, and $10,000 for bronze, but that democracy ends there. (Azerbaijan, meanwhile, pays $510,000; Italy, $180,000, and France, $135,000.)
Eight-year-old girls watching the Fierce Five gymnastics team clamor to sign up for gymnastics classes, and buy their spangled leotards. And what weekend warrior can’t dream of sprinting through the finish line (and wear his sneakers)? But Ginny Thrasher, the West Virginia woman who shot her way to the U.S.’s first top prize, is unlikely to spin her gold medal from the air rifle competition into dollars.
“Not too many people have watched air rifling and said, ‘Oh my God, I want to do that,’” said Professor Whitney Wagoner, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “We look at athletes and want to be like them, or at least to be perceived to be like them.
“In order for brands to invest in people, and to want them to encourage people to buy their products, you have to care about that person,” Wagoner said. “That’s why the athlete’s mystique is so awesome. People want to aspire—and be inspired.”
That’s why, in recent years, the narrative of the athlete who has overcome obstacles for his or her sport has become all the more crucial in his or her popularity, said Professor Felicia Miller, an associate professor of marketing at Marquette University in Milwaukie, Wisconsin.
Much of that is also determined by the media, which airs the most beloved sports in prime time, and trickles out their moving life stories as the Games go on. In London, for example, we learned of Gabby Douglas leaving her hometown and family in Virginia at 14 to train with renowned coach Liang Chow in Iowa. By now, we’ve heard of Simone Biles’s early years in foster care.
That’s in part because corporate sponsors have shifted their focus in recent years, latching onto the athlete’s stories and personalities they find most appealing, Miller said. Decades ago, Olympic champions could hope to be on a Wheaties box, but now they have splashy big ads before and after the games, with superstars selling everything from underwear to minty chewing gum. Some companies, such as United Airlines, show the highly recognizable—2012 gold medal decathlete Ashton Eaton and five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings—but also include a host of lesser-known competitors, such as Dartanyon Crockett, a Paralympian in judo who is legally blind.
Another factor in an athlete’s ability to cash in, sports experts says, is how visible they are—quite literally. Runners and volleyball players, who compete in very little clothing, their bodies glistening with sweat, are far more likely to gain bigger endorsements than, say, hockey players, whose faces and bodies are concealed behind padding, helmets, and headgear, said Professor Matthew Mitten, who directs Marquette’s National Sports Law Institute.
But most of the more than 10,500 Olympic athletes—even those who win medals—are not so lucky. The International Olympic Committee doesn’t pay athletes anything to play in the Games (It’s an honor just to be there!), and the vast majority have to pay their way. And many, despite their Olympic successes, make very little money. Emily Scott, a speed skater in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, had to rely on food stamps as she trained, and Ronda Rousey, who won a bronze medal in judo in 2008, was living out of her car two years later. (She has since rebounded.)
At the Houston airport on a layover to Rio Wednesday night, Maggie Malone, who throws the javelin, was heading to her first Olympics. She is sponsored by Nike, which provides $2,000 a year for massage therapy and chiropractors, she said, and is hopeful for success on the field.
“My coach told me, ‘You have to go to try and win the medal and do your job just like any other job, and hope you medal. It is a business and potentially this is your livelihood, so do your very best and hope big names come after you.” She paused. “But it’s a little harder for some of us in lesser-known sports.” It can cost tens of thousands a year to train at an elite level, and most athletes she knows, Malone said, have GoFundMe campaigns to help pay for their coaches, physical therapies, and travel to competitions. (Wealthy donors boost Olympic wrestlers’ medal earnings with bonuses of $250,000.)
Latario Collie-Minns, 22, a Team USA triple jumper who is also a first-time Olympian, doesn’t have quite that backing. “You have to try to market yourself,” he said. He’s fortunate, he added: born in the Bahamas, his government helps fund his training costs.
That’s one reason why the International Olympic Committee relaxed its rules regarding competitors 40 years ago. Then, only “amateur” athletes were allowed to compete on the U.S. team, but that gave American athletes a distinct disadvantage. The Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries fully funded their athletes, whose sole job was to train for their sport. Since then, professional athletes—think of Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Serena Williams—have taken their place in the Games.
Hillary Bor, 26, a first-time Olympian who will compete in the steeplechase, said he thinks the process is skewed. “Many of the people highlighted by the media look like they’re hand-chosen,” he said. “We all work hard. I think it’s unfair.”
Richard Reider, an adjunct professor at Marquette’s law school who worked for decades as a manager of sports and entertainment marketing at Miller Brewing Company in Milwaukie, put it this way: “Brands and corporations aren’t benevolent organizations with missions—they’re for-profit businesses,” he said. “They sign these guys when they’re hot, at the peak of the fame they’ll have for four years. It’s like putting lightning in a bottle.
“Winning,” he said, “is everything.”
Just ask Michael Phelps, who became a sensation in the Beijing Olympics—and won many endorsement contracts. But his sponsors dropped him after a 2009 photo surfaced of him holding a bong. It got even worse in 2014, when he was busted for driving under the influence.
Now, though, the world’s greatest swimmer has returned to the Olympics with a story Americans love: redemption. “He hit rock bottom, got into substance abuse treatment, met a woman who changed his life, and has a new baby,” said Miller, the branding expert at Marquette. “He’s exorcising his demons at this Olympics. He’s talking about how he’s calmer now, and has been transformed. It’s not that he has 21 gold medals, or that he’s going to break more records. It’s that he’s a different person now,” she said.
That must be why Omega, the watchmaker, features Phelps in a video, his giant arms outstretching, superimposed over an image of Rio’s famed Corcovado statue that overlooks the city. Rio natives call it the Redentor, the Redeemer.
Omega may, however, be taking the narrative a little far. Phelps may be a demigod in the pool. But is he Jesus?