Yet many Olympic athletes live below the poverty line
Despite the TV glory, a surprising number of Olympic athletes live below the poverty line. They typically self-fund their training and efforts, scraping together an income from limited prize money, part-time jobs, and sponsor contracts.
Selling sausages to train for the Olympics
We hear about the $8 million dollar endorsement deal that skier Bode Miller signed or Shaun White’s $20 million dollar paycheck, but we don’t hear much about athletes like Tyler Jewell, who sold sausages at a state fair in New Mexico, Discus Thrower Lance Brooks who works construction on the side, or Taylor Fletcher who works as a waiter while training for the Olympics.
“Concrete laying. The hard work… It’s probably not the ideal job to have as an athlete, but it pays the bills and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.” — Lance Brooks (Chicago Tribune)
While the top 10 runners in the world can earn more than $100,000, only half of American track and field athletes who are ranked in the top 10 in their event earn more than $15,000 a year from their sport. If you’re not in the top 10, you probably have no funding (or very little funding) from the sport. It’s tough to work and earn a living when you’re training five or more hours a day.
Of course some Olympic athletes do go on to earn money in endorsements or launch reality shows (yes, I’m talking about you Caitlyn Jenner), but only after appearing on the world stage.
US Olympic athletes do not get government subsidies
Unlike athletes in many other countries, American Olympians receive no direct support from the federal government. The US Olympic Committee (USOC) offers health insurance and stipends to only a limited number of competitors. Get hurt and it’s likely on your dime.
With all that exposure, though, it seems like the athletes could capitalize. Some have. But the majority can’t. In part, that’s because of Rule 40.
Rule 40 prohibits athletes from marketing themselves during the most high-profile two weeks of their career — the Olympics. Meanwhile, the official sponsors and the IOC profit. — rule40.com
The website rule40.com has focused on this issue by walking the delicate line between talking about the Olympics and the athletes… and not talking about the Olympics and athletes.
The modifications to Rule 40 were a concession in itself. Kind of. Under the original rule, only official Olympic sponsors could use Olympic-related material to advertise. Folks like McDonalds, GE, VISA, P&G, or Coca-Cola — you know the folks that paid $200 million each to be “official.”
Protecting the brand
I can see that the Olympics wants to protect its brand and protect its revenue. Like anything else, there’s a business underneath it all that keeps it churning along. So I get that if you want to use one of the Olympic trademarks, or name, in advertising you need to get permission.
Non-Sponsors may not use OLYMPIC, PARALYMPIC, RIO 2016 or other Marks in any commercial context without the USOC’s permission before, during or after the Games. — USOC
But can’t someone just congratulate an athlete on their performance, or a company that’s paying to sponsor an athlete wish them luck? It’s the athletes that don’t have those big endorsement deals that this impacts the most.
If you want to read Rule 40 of the official Olympic Charter, here it is on the TeamUSA website.
It basically says that anyone who participates in the Olympic games (coach, trainer, athlete, official) can let their name, picture, or performance be used for advertising during the games without the consent of the IOC. That includes a Facebook post thanking their sponsors for the support that made it possible, or a Tweet using the “official” hashtags.
No athlete participating in the Games may allow his or her person, name, picture or sports performance to be used for advertising purposes during the blackout period for each Games (which generally corresponds with the period of time that the Olympic or Paralympic Village is open) unless a waiver is sought from and granted by the USOC. — USOC
So I can get a waiver? Great! Oh, wait a minute…
How do you get that waiver? Participants would have needed to get permission six months ago — before they likely knew whether they would be qualified. And, the only consent that’s been given has been to… you guessed it… those in the $200 million dollar club. If you really thought the modern day Olympics had anything to do with amateur sports, you’re mistaken.
Emma Coburn holds the American Record for Steeplechase and is a four time US Champion and 2012 Olympian. She is sponsored by New Balance. But neither she nor New Balance can talk about it during the Olympics. Shh.
Freedom of Speech, anyone?
Legally, you can’t own a hashtag. You can own a brand name, so you could exert some pressure on people using something like #olympics, but #rio is the name of a city — you can’t stop its use — despite what the IOC says.
#rio2016 is off limits, says the IOC, but that isn’t stopping people from using it. I guess as long as you’re not an athlete or a company pushing a non-Olympic brand, it’s OK.
Trademark infringement and stealing intellectual property
Right before the games, the US Olympic Committee sent letters to companies sponsoring athletes that do not have a commercial agreement with the USOC or the IOC. It warned them about “stealing intellectual property” and “trademark infringement” by using the “official” Twitter hashtags (like #rio2016).
You can register a hashtag, but it doesn’t mean much. Since 2013, you’ve been able to trademark hashtags, but that only gives you a narrowly-defined legal protection.
“The USOC is alleging that commercial entities are using these hashtags and that’s trademark infringement. I think it’s completely bogus. Trademark infringement occurs when another party uses a trademark and confuses the public as to the source of a product or service that’s being used in commerce. That’s not what happens when you use a hashtag. I’m not selling a product or service, I’m just making statements on an open forum. How else do you indicate you are talking about the Rio 2016 Olympics without saying #Rio2016?” — Mark Terry, intellectual property attorney via The Guardian
If a company were using the hashtag and making it look like they were an official Olympic sponsor that would be one thing. Most of the posts we’ve seen have revolved around companies that sponsor athletes that want to celebrate the success… of the athletes they sponsor.
That’s why websites likerule40.com have been posting things like this: “If we could wish you luck by name, we would. But it’s too risky to even mention ours.” and tagging it with “generic worldwide quadrennial sporting event advertisement.”
The changes now allow athletes to appear in generic advertising that does not explicitly mention the games or use any Olympic intellectual property such as the iconic rings. Athletes also are now allowed to tweet about nonofficial sponsors provided they don’t use specific Olympic intellectual property. — International Olympic Committee — Mediapost.com
And then, there are taxes
Those good enough to win a medal do get a payment, $25k for gold, $15 for silver, $10k for bronze. But then, of course, US athletes have to pay taxes. It could be as high as a $9,900 tax bill for winning the gold.
NY Senator Chuck Schumer has sponsored legislation to stop that.
“Most countries subsidize their athletes; the very least we can do is make sure our athletes don’t get hit with a tax bill for winning.” — NY Senator Chuck Schumer (AL.com)
If you can’t sleep tonight…
You can read the rest of the Olympic rules here.