This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
Becca Murray, a two-time gold medal winner in wheelchair basketball, balanced the demands of being an elite para-sport athlete by waking up at 4 a.m to train, working eight hours as a clinic assistant, and then returning to the gym. Though she was planning on competing in the 2020 Paralympics, the pandemic postponement forced her to reassess. She decided in spring 2020 to end her international basketball career to focus on stability; the 2021 ESPY Award winner left the national team to continue her career in Brown Deer, Wisconsin, and work toward owning her own home.
“I made my first USA team and I was 17, so I’ve gotten three Paralympics in my time,” Murray said. “And so mentally, I was just, you know, ready to pursue other dreams of mine, such as getting my own place to live.”
Olympic and Paralympic athletes can earn decent paydays for their medal wins; Team USA pays $37,500 for each gold medal. But the average funding available to some of the world’s best athletes for training and living is its own story — and it can vary dramatically based on where in the world those athletes live.
Let’s start with just how much can be made by having a medal draped around your neck. Along with that $37,500 for a gold, the U.S. currently offers $22,500 for a silver and $15,000 for a bronze. That’s in line with other high-performing countries that offer incentives. Australian athletes will be paid a little less than $15,000 (in U.S. dollars) for each individual gold, Japan is paying athletes about $45,000 for gold medals earned in Tokyo, and Russian gold medalists received $65,000 for their 2018 performances. Singapore, on the other hand, offers a whopping $744,000 to individual gold medalists1 — though only one Singaporian athlete has ever won gold: Joseph Schooling in the 100-meter butterfly in 2016.
But medal winners are just a small share of the athletes who represent their countries every four years. At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, 11,238 athletes competed, but just 1,233 — or 11 percent — earned medals, according to data from Olympedia.
The money paid to medalists by some countries can be vastly different from the amount available to other athletes on a consistent basis. Standardized athlete stipends are available in several countries, but they can be worth much less. Canada offers approximately $17,000 in yearly funding for senior athletes (not including benefits like mental health coaching and nutritional support), while Australia gives out roughly $25,000 to its top-tier athletes. The United Kingdom does not offer medal incentives, but it does provide stipends at an average of about $36,000 per athlete.
While many governing bodies are federally funded, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is fully funded through donations and corporate funders. Team USA did not respond to repeated requests for full stipend information, but data is available publicly for some teams, and funding varies widely. American rowers receive either $1,300 or $1,700 per month, depending on their tier; weightlifters see from $500 to $3,500 monthly.
Paralympic athletes are often funded even less — or they have higher standards to meet. Team USA’s Paralympic gold medals used to be worth $30,000 less than an able-bodied athlete’s win until a change was made after the 2018 games. In the U.K., while stipends are the same amount, the barrier for entry is higher for Paralympians: In their tiered system, a Band A athlete has to be a Paralympic gold medalist or world champion, while a Band B athlete (and the accompanying $29,704) still has to be a Paralympic or world championship medalist. In comparison, a Band B able-bodied athlete only has to finish top eight in a world championship or Olympic games, while a Band A athlete has to obtain just a bronze.
Of course, the financial picture for these athletes gets even murkier from there. Bonuses paid by various athlete federations, competitions and sponsors add another wrinkle to this equation. As USA Today reported in May 2020, many athletes were already feeling a financial strain with less and less prize money available; when COVID-19 hit and curtailed many competitions, those athletes struggled even more.
Murray says that when she started with Team USA in 2008, there was very little funding: She received around $500 every three months. Sponsors can make a big difference — Murray’s $2,000-plus basketball wheelchair was provided by Top End Invacare — and high-profile campaigns by the likes of Visa and Toyota have increased funding generally, though it’s unclear how much of that actually makes it to the athletes themselves. By the end of her time on the national team, Murray saw about $2,000 per quarter.
“As athletes, your job security is non-existent,” Zak Madell, a member of the Canadian wheelchair rugby team, told the Calgary Booster Club. “You’re one injury away from not having a job or source of income.”
Athletes will keep competing for the love of their sports. But without consistent funding, many more like Murray may be forced to give up their athletic careers before they’re ready.