The Financial Struggles of American Olympians

By Scott Sarvay

The Financial Struggles of American Olympians

July 10, 2012 Updated Jul 10, 2012 at 10:12 AM EDT

USA (Indiana’s NewsCenter) - Unlike athletes in many other countries, American Olympians don’t receive direct support from the federal government. Meaning the athletes have to stitch together an income made up of prize money, apparel contracts, grants and part-time work in order to survive.

Only 50% of American track and field athletes who are ranked in the top ten in the nation in their event earn more than $15,000 a year in income from the sport, according to a survey conducted by the USA Track and Field Foundation.

And most athletes not ranked in the top ten nationally fare much worse.

Adam Nelson, a two-time silver medalist took a creative approach to his problem and sought out a sponsorship on eBay.

Nelson’s idea was that if someone could auction a piece of toast with Jesus on it for thousands of dollars, he could auction himself. Now he’s worth $12,000 a month.

Brian Sell, an Olympic runner who made the U.S. team for the 2008 Beijing games, should have had an easier time. He competed in the marathon -- one of the sport's biggest attractions, and one that has big money available at races like New York, Boston and London.

But Sell, who made 50% of his income from performance-based prizes at his peak, said that it took him years to make any real money in the sport.

Before finding sponsorship Sell's income was below $25,000 for three consecutive years. Capturing a fourth place finish in the Boston Marathon earned him a check for $25,000.

With a string of successes, Sell's income rose to $125,000.

Olympic glory itself can boost athletes' income. Americans who win gold medals in London will receive a $25,000 bonus, while silver medals will bring $15,000 and bronze medal winners will net $10,000.

Scott Parsons, a 33-year-old Maryland resident, is scheduled to compete in the kayak slalom event in London. It will be his third trip to the Olympics.

Kayak athletes don't have the same sponsorship opportunities available to track and field athletes.

To make ends meet, Parsons has worked part-time jobs, including one at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He also estimates that he has lived in five different basement apartments over the past ten years.

Steve Prefontaine, the long-distance runner of the 1970s, was forced into using food stamps to survive.

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