Life After the Olympics
Of the 2,925 athletes competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics*, only a few hundred will receive a medal. Even fewer will receive sponsorships. For the rest, life after the Olympics often means entering the workforce with everyone else.
Depending on their home country, most of the athletes won’t see a bank account boon from the games alone. Team USA athletes get a medal bonus—$25,000 for a gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze—from the United States Olympic Committee, but that’s if they make it to the podium. Most Olympians are unbelievably talented but fall under the low-paid amateur category. That’s not a knock on Olympians—often the only difference between amateur and professional athlete is that the pros are paid to play. In order for Olympians to make decent money, they have to land a sponsorship.
And that’s not easy, because life-changing sponsorships don’t automatically happen for just any gold medalists. Typically, the biggest deals go to athletes who compete in individually-focused sports like figure skating, sprinting, and swimming, where a sponsor can broadcast their brand on a single outstanding athlete like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps, or Michelle Kwan. Even if an Olympian can’t shatter records and collect medals like Bolt or Phelps, they might still get some sponsorship love if they have a compelling backstory and social media presence.
But for many athletes, life after the Olympics often means finding a way to harness a lifetime of disciplined training into a much more everyday kind of career path—a struggle that can be more challenging than most Olympics viewers realize.
Getting to the games
The struggle to bridge the gap between full-time amateur athlete to financially stable adult typically starts during the early training years. “The path of getting to the Olympics is harder than being there,” says Edward Etzel, a psychologist and professor at West Virginia University who took home the gold medal for prone rifle shooting at the 1984 Summer Olympics.
That’s largely because the U.S. offers its Olympians little in the way of financial compensation. Top athletes receive $400 to $2,000 per month in stipends from the USOC. Many athletes also rely on other funding like grants and early sponsorships, but those aren’t raking in cash, either. A 2012 study by the Track and Field Athletes Association and the USATF Foundation found that more than 50 percent of track and field athletes who rank in the top 10 make less than $15,000 a year through all sports-related funding.
And for these “amateurs,” their hobby is incredibly expensive. In 2016, Wired estimated the average annual costs for an Olympics-track swimmer at $100,000 a year, and track and field competitors could expect to shell out $20,000 per year. Just finding an appropriate place to train is a financial struggle in the United States. There are only three Olympic training centers with on-site boarding and around-the-clock access to top-level facilities in the country, and those centers are used by just 13 percent of American Olympians. An even smaller percentage of those athletes actually receive free housing at the training center. Many pay more than $100 night to stay there.
Coming up with the funds to train is further compounded by the fact that athletes train full time, making finding a traditional job difficult.
“It’s very hard to find jobs that are flexible to your schedule and pay well while being an Olympic athlete,” says Jeffery Julmis, a 31-year-old American-born Haitian track-and-fielder who represented Haiti during the 2016 Rio Olympics (he was disqualified in the hurdles semifinals).
Julmis has been working as an assistant coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, since 2015, and is training for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Another track and field hurdler, 35-year-old American Kellie Wells, who won the bronze at the 2012 London Games, juggled a seemingly impossible schedule.
“I worked two jobs while training in the beginning. I worked part time at a gym and then I was a home health aide. I worked seven days a week and trained full time,” says Wells.
On the plus side, rigorous training schedules and funding struggles impart the hardened discipline most athletes will need to reset their lives once their Olympic careers are over. Since so few can rely on their sporting career to take them into retirement, having a plan “B” is key.
“If your goal is to climb to the top of the mountain, what’s there? Absolutely nothing, just yourself. You have to find something else to do with your life. If I didn’t do anything else [after winning the gold] I’d have starved to death decades ago,” says Etzel.
Getting on track off field
Maritza McClendon was the first black woman to both make the U.S. Olympic swimming team and the first black woman to break American swimming records in the 2002 NCAA U.S. Open. With a full college scholarship for swimming, McClendon spent those years focused on her sport, with the financial support of her parents.
In 2004, after a lifetime commitment to swimming, she won the Olympic Silver medal at 22 and then went on to rack up more decorations in the sport for another four years. She landed a sponsorship deal with Nike which gave her a full-time salary that afforded her a car and a house. But when a double-shoulder injury forced retirement before the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, McClendon had to face finding a traditional career at 27 with no professional experience.
“I knew my sponsorship was ending and panic set in,” says McClendon. She started looking for a job—any job—but was turned down time and time again for a year.
“You get to a point where you’re swimming for so many years, you don’t know how to go into the real world and get a job. I didn’t have anyone there telling me where to look or give me advice,” says McClendon.
“The struggle started with a resume that would attract employers … I didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise, so I looked at Monster and LinkedIn for any entry level position. Some [employers] may have been interested in my personality, but I didn’t have any experience,” she recalls.
McClendon rallied, finding an employer willing to take her on and working her way up to her current career, senior marketing manager at OshKosh B'gosh, but the hard times weren’t easily forgotten. “I know it’s a struggle [for other Olympians],” she says.
Finding a new identity
For Wells, transitioning to the post-Olympics life, “was difficult because a part of my identity was lost. Something that I had done for the longest time was now a thing of the past, and I had to figure out what’s next. Mine was a wedding, baby, and working with various companies.” Wells has since been a brand ambassador to companies like Nike, Coca-Cola and the U.S. Army. She has also used her Olympian status to spread awareness about domestic violence and sexual abuse.
But many athletes struggle to find a balance between who they were in the sporting world and who they are in the workforce.
“When you train for the Olympics, all of your focus is on your sport. Once you leave that sport, it’s hard to adjust—now you have to transition into being an employee or a co-worker,” says Julmis. “It can be hard to find another passion when you’ve been passionate about one thing for so long.”
The support systems to help Olympians (and professional athletes) transition after retirement aren’t strong. The Olympic Committee’s Athlete Career Program appears to be just a few PDF guidebooks. Yet, the USOC is aware of its athletes’ transition anxieties—a survey presented to the USOC board in 2012 stated that 67 percent of the 400+ Olympian respondents were afraid of leaving their sport, and that 43 percent of those worried Olympians experienced trouble entering the workforce after their athletic career. Even that was likely old news to the USOC—those numbers came from a survey conducted in 2001 by Monster.com
One Olympian is working to change that. Lavonne Idelette, a 32-year-old American-born hurdler for the Dominican Republic who competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics, realized that athletes who train in the sport for a long time “will lose their life vision if they haven’t sat and thought about what they want to do.” After listening to her friends and fellow athletes “express interest in business but have no idea how to go about it,” she recently founded B3 Face Forward, a consulting practice that helps athletes build their brand and their own businesses.
Idelette feels that while athletes may not have a traditional background to fill a resume, they do offer a unique set of highly valuable skills. “To become an Olympian, you must have learned discipline, resilience, hard work, time management, team work, and if you’re doing it properly, then you also learned to perform under pressure with integrity,” says Idelette, adding that competing in the Olympics opens athletes up to different cultures “which makes interacting with those unlike you or from your background easier to do. It also is a great place to network—if you’re a social butterfly like myself.”
Julmis also is quick to point out the soft skills training for the Olympics imparts. “[Being an Olympian] prepares me to work in a team environment, knowing what it takes to represent a company being that you had represented your country,” he says. “It prepares you for the unknown—when you get to the Olympics you have a strong mindset, but you never know what to expect. That can scare people, but as an athlete it drives me.”
*A version of this story originally appeared in February 2018