Grants and gold medal bonuses: Here’s how Australian Olympic athletes earned their way to Tokyo

Article by David Adams courtesy of Business Insider.

Despite the glamour and hype of the Olympic Games, it can be hard for professional athletes to make a living.
A recent survey showed many of Australia’s top-level athletes struggled to make ends meet.
Here’s how professional sportspeople can gather financial support to power their athletic success.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics promised Australian athletes the chance to compete against the world’s best, dazzle audiences with their skills, and write their own names into sporting history.

But the life of an elite athlete doesn’t necessarily offer those competitors a steady wage. A few moments of glory on the Olympic podium may be preceded by years of hard graft and low salaries, with very few of the nation’s top performers able to support themselves with sport alone.

Here’s a brief glimpse at how Australian athletes make a living as they train for the planet’s biggest sporting event.

Athletics’ amateur history and low-paying present
For much of recent Olympic history, it was expected that athletes would not earn money for their sporting pursuits. That thinking began with French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, the forefather of the modern Games, who viewed sports as the noble pursuit of upper-class amateurs, for whom money was of no concern.

That rule changed in 1986, allowing paid athletes to compete. Yet the cost of training an elite athlete, often from early childhood, means athletic success is still tied to existing wealth: as with any other pursuit, it’s easier to build an elite sporting career if you don’t have to make a living from it.

For everyone else, the path to Olympic success is somewhat more difficult. Training more may mean earning less in the real world, and training less may result in slipping performance. The pandemic did not help matters, either: A 2020 survey undertaken by the Australian Sports Foundation found around half of athletes who competed on a national or international level earned less than $23,000 in total through the year.

Government support and medal bonuses
To fill in the gap, the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) offers means-tested grants of up to $17,500 to athletes with serious potential to earn a medal at the Olympic, Paralympic, or Commonwealth games. Those grants come in six-month blocks, meaning eligible athletes can claim up to $35,000 a year. The scheme costs the Australian taxpayer in the vicinity of $14 million a year.

In April, Commonwealth Games Australia and the AIS also launched a new $8,000 grant for athletes to “fund international or domestic travel for training or competition, medical support or other training-related expenses.”

And in Budget 2021-2022, the federal government has committed $136.3 million for the nation’s elite athletes, including $50.6 million in “high performance grants” for Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Further perks await those who succeed at the Games. Under the Australian Olympic Committee’s Medal Incentive Funding program, gold, silver, and bronze Olympic medalists will receive bonuses of $20,000, $15,000, and $10,000, respectively.

Not a bad payday for Australian swimmer Emma McKeon, who won four gold and three bronze medals in Tokyo.

Wealthy beneficiaries stepping in
Some of Australia’s most accomplished swimmers also have the benefit of private sponsorship. Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest person and the executive chairman of Hancock Prospecting, is behind a quarterly grant of up to $8,000 for Olympic hopefuls.

The financial support “allows them to focus on their training and performance and not be distracted by financial pressures that most athletes face,” Swimming Australia states. The same program also provides an incentive pool of $170,000 for medalists and top-eight finishers.

Australia’s top rowers have also benefited from Rinehart’s sponsorship. The Australian reports the mining magnate has underwritten a $525-a-week wage for the nation’s top 50 rowers in both the men’s and women’s competitions. That support has been “profound” and “game changing,” Rowing Australia’s chief executive Ian Robson told the paper.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Australia’s two most successful sports at Tokyo are swimming and rowing.

Sponsorship deals
Athletes are free to negotiate their own personal sponsorship deals — to a point.

Australia’s most successful athletes, with major profiles before the Games, could be facing massive pay cheques from their top tier sponsors.

At the same time, the IOC — once staunchly against commercialisation — is a zealous guardian of its own brand, and the revenue which comes from its global advertising partnerships.

The result is a hardline advertising rulebook, which limits how athletes can cash in on their Olympic cachet.

A FAQ, issued by the International Olympic Committee before Tokyo, runs through the do’s and don’ts of advertising campaigns which feature Olympic athletes; athletes are not even permitted to issue more than one ‘thank you’ statement to personal advertisers who are not also “Olympic Partners”.

These rules, and the way the world’s largest athletic competition only swings around every four years, means very few competitors earn enough in sponsorship money to underwrite their entire careers.

And for those athletes who cannot rely solely on generational wealth, government support, wealthy beneficiaries, and corporate sponsors: there are ordinary jobs, giving the nation’s most extraordinary athletes the chance to show their grit and determination even when they’re not on the world stage.

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