Most Olympians aren't in it for the money
You see them everywhere after the Olympics, the beaming faces and chiseled physiques of superstar athletes on everything from cereal boxes to athletic shoe ads.
Here is what you don’t see: the countless other Olympians who will never get a lucrative endorsement deal, who toil in relative obscurity, who struggle to pay their bills and balance work schedules with intense training just for a chance to compete with the best.
The reality for most Olympians couldn’t be farther from that of the charmed few who live off endorsements and sponsorships.
“If you’re curling because you want to be a millionaire, you’re in the wrong sport,” Canadian curler Ben Hebert said with a chuckle after a recent game in Pyeongchang.
Most of the athletes competing at the Pyeongchang Games know they will never get rich off their athletic feats. Some barely break even. They are driven not by money, but by a sense of achievement, of pride, of a chance at grabbing a glory that most of us never could.
Still, that glory doesn’t come cheap. So to fund their dreams, Olympians set up crowd-funding websites, look for jobs with odd hours that won’t interfere with practice, or work overtime to save up money in the offseason so they can cut back when it’s time to hit the road.
Hebert works as a sales manager for a land surveying company in Calgary. Because his company is one of the curling team’s sponsors, his bosses have given him flexibility with his schedule. But it’s still not easy. His wife has to handle the care for their 4-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son while he’s competing. When he’s not away, he tries to maximize his time at home by dashing to the curling club for practice on his lunch break. After work, he plays with the kids and then heads to bed.
“There’s a lot that goes into the sacrifice of being an amateur athlete at the Olympics, but being here and seeing all the other athletes in the opening ceremonies and competing for medals, that’s why you do it,” he said. “There’s a lot of really, really good Canadian curlers, athletes that sacrifice just as much as we do, and they’re not here. So we’re the lucky ones.”
Hebert’s teammate, Kevin Koe, works full time as a surface landman for an oil and gas company, liaising with landowners and farmers.
He often finds himself working even while on the road for curling competitions, making calls and answering emails in between matches.
He, too, jams training and gym sessions into his lunch hour. After work, he heads home to spend time with his 10-year-old and 12-year-old daughters.
“They’re busy and I miss a lot of it, but when I’m there, I like to see as much as I can,” said Koe, whose team finished fourth. “It’s a balancing act but it just seems like it’s been like that for so long, you just kind of get used to it.”
Working as a plumber has provided US snowboard-cross rider Jonathan Cheever with access to ample job opportunities and quick cash. It’s also given him links to sponsors in the plumbing industry.
“I travel the world in my snowboard. My biggest complaint is I run up credit card debt, but like in the grand scheme of things, life is really good,” said Cheever, who finished 28th. “If money was my main motivator, I would probably be in (Massachusetts) right now or waking up in the morning to go to a job site, but it’s not. I love the lifestyle. I’ve met my wife through snowboard cross.”
Injuries that often accompany athletes’ Olympic dreams can amplify their financial woes. French freestyle skier Anais Caradeux showed up to the 2014 Sochi Games on crutches after suffering a serious knee injury three weeks earlier. She was determined to compete in the halfpipe and ended up crashing so hard that it took her years to fully recover.
While recuperating, Caradeux’s sponsors abandoned her. Between travel, coaching and practice fees, one season alone costs around US$43,000. So she began working as a temporary tattoo artist. She spent the money she made wisely, carefully choosing where and when to train.
“It’s been challenging the past few years to have to deal with money issues plus the body issues,” she said. “It does bring your spirit down a little bit because you feel like asking yourself if you’re really, really on the right path, you know? Maybe you’re wasting your time.”
And yet like many Olympians, she continued to push through the financial and physical pain.
“I couldn’t quit my career without coming back to one Olympics, or at least give everything I have to get the chances to go back,” said Caradeux, who finished 12th in Pyeongchang.
Tabitha Peterson, a member of the US women’s curling team, squeezes in as many hours as she can as a pharmacist when she’s not competing. Her work hours vary, so she hits the gym whenever she can and goes to the curling center a few times a week. “When you’re gone, it’s lost wages. I mean, you can make some money on tour if you do well, but it’s definitely not enough to support yourself,” she said. “But to do something like this and get to the Olympics and compete on this stage is kind of the goal.”
All the juggling leads up to exhaustion for some of the athletes. Nina Roth, the “skip” or captain of the US women’s curling team, begins her shifts as a nurse at 6:30am. That means waking up at 4:30am to jump on the elliptical machine before she heads to the hospital. Some days, after putting in 12 hours at work, she’ll head to the curling club for practice. Other times, her legs are so tired from standing all day that she saves her energy and opts to put in one long practice session on her day off.
In the run-up to Pyeongchang, Roth and her husband set aside money so she could work part-time. But she still doesn’t see her husband as much as she’d like. The US women’s team failed to qualify for the medal round. That said, she wouldn’t change it for anything.
“We just love the game so much, so being able to represent USA — I mean, this is worth all of that,” she said, and then laughed. “This is worth being poor!”