In April of 2016, 39-year old retired Olympic High Jumper Jamie Nieto was told that he would never walk again. The once strong legs that had carried him over bars nearly eight feet in the air would now sit cold, stiff and motionless in an electric wheelchair. Furthermore, he would spend the rest of his days drowning in medical bills and other expenses.
Nieto was training with several other high jumpers in Los Angeles when he attempted a back flip on the mat — something he did after every jump. The trick failed and he injured a disk in his neck, which resulted in the devastating injury.
The dark irony of the situation is that a few weeks prior to the accident, Nieto cancelled his health insurance plan because of financial hardship. He had fallen on hard times and could no longer afford the monthly payments. As a result, he would be responsible for a hospital bill that could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Immediately, athletes from all over the world began to fundraise money so that the fallen Olympian wouldn’t be left to face the financial battle alone. Within hours, several thousands of dollars were raised.
Take a look at Nieto’s record sheet and you’ll see an accomplished athlete. Between 2003 and 2012, he had eight top ten finishes on the international stage, inspiring crowds all over the world at events including the Pan American games in Brazil in 2007, and the World Championships in France in 2003. Contrast his fantastic feats with his life today. Now, he is struggling to pay bills and is far removed from the success he once knew.
THE BIG PICTURE
Unfortunately, Nieto’s circumstances are not rare. In fact, it is not uncommon for an Olympian to go from the zenith of the athletic domain to dire financial straits within a few short years.
Each year following the Olympics, many Americans who compete in the games return home only to fall on hard times. Though the Olympic games bear the potential for hearty financial return in the short run, many Olympians have trouble supporting themselves in subsequent years as their bodies begin to deteriorate, and they can no longer compete.
In 2016, the monetary compensation for Olympic athletes will be $25,000 dollars for a gold medal, $15,000 dollars for a silver medal, and $10,000 dollars for a bronze medal.
Though this may seem to be a generous payout, one must consider that Olympic earnings are heavily taxed. If an athlete were to win a medal in Brazil this summer, it is likely that they will return home with less than a fraction of that sum.
This summer, over five hundred American athletes will be competing in the Olympics. From Judo and Rugby Sevens to Table Tennis and Water Polo, each person and team will have their shot at a medal.
Very few Americans will come home with medals, but the ones that do will have the chance to sign financially lucrative promotions.
But, what about the men and women who go home empty handed?
Unfortunately, it is very likely that within a few years of competing, these Olympians will face health troubles, but won’t have the same luxuries that most of us have, including employer provided healthcare. To the surprise of many, the United States does not provide Olympians with health care coverage, leaving them unprotected and at risk for financial ruin if they ever do run into serious health issues.
The same study found that only 20% of the athletes made more than $50,000 annually, and that athletes who were not in the top ten could expect to make “very limited (if any) income…”
Essentially, if you are an American Olympian, it is likely that you will make less than the average American household income, which was $50,756 in 2015.
Mainstream media convinces us that each and every American Olympian is a Michael Phelps, Shaun White or Bode Miller who makes millions of dollars from endorsements, apparel deals, and winnings after the Olympics. However, the reality of the true Olympian is much darker. The average Olympian will return home to the United States empty handed, with no major endorsements or deals, and substantially poorer than the average American.
Without a doubt, Olympians sacrifice more than the average American could ever imagine in order attain their shining moment on the world stage. They forgo the chance to lead an average life so that they can live out their dreams of doing what they love in front of millions. Being an Olympian certainly takes tolls on families, relationships, and overall health. Unfortunately, the years of hard work are unlikely to come with substantial financial reward.
So, what is the solution to this issue?
In 2012, Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill to the house that would eliminate taxes on the winnings of olympic athletes. Rather than win $25,0000 for a gold medal and owe nearly $9,000 of that to the IRS, the bill would allow athletes to keep their winnings. However, due to the infamous division within our government, the bill did not go much further than its initial hearings.
It’s a no brainer that Olympians should have free health insurance.
These are people who go to great ends to maintain the good name of the United States, a country that outperforms competing countries each year at the Olympics. In 2012, the USA won 103 medals overall, and China came in second place with 88. In 2008, the USA won 110, while the second place country only had 100.
It’s only fair that we protect those who help the USA maintain its status as an athletic super power.
On August 5th, we’ll see over five hundred American athletes have their shot at a gold medal, and the chance to cement themselves in the American psyche as heroes. However, after the lights dim and these athletes have returned home, many of them will struggle and face uncertain futures.
As we watch them give us their all, let’s not forget their sacrifices.