With the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang coming to a close, you may have seen all the articles out there about how much Olympic medals are actually worth. The consensus? There is a bit under $600 of gold in a gold medal, around $300 of silver in a silver medal, and $3.50 of copper alloy in a bronze medal. At auction, the value varies widely by athlete, sport, and significance of the win - from $10,000 to $1.5 million for one of Jesse Owens' 1936 medals - while subsequent sponsorship opportunities are just as difficult to pin down for the same reasons. Some countries even pay athletes bonuses for gold medal wins, a prize ranging from $15,000 for Canadian gold medallists to $1 million for gold medallists from Singapore.
But how much does it cost to actually get an athlete onto that podium in the first place, with a medal around their neck? While this will, again, vary by sport, there are some costs that almost every athlete encounters.
First, the tangible out-of-pocket expenses: training and equipment. At Olympic levels, athletes should not be paying for coaches, but as kids and teenagers, athletes first need to learn their chosen sport, often by joining athletic clubs and teams. In team sports, this may be one of the cheaper costs (only a few thousand per year), but for sports that require private coaching and facility time, like figure skating or ski jumping, it can cost up to $30,000 per year. Then, nearly every sport requires specialized equipment - especially in winter sports, where this can cost as much or more than the lessons. After all, an aspiring speed-skater won't get far with second-hand figure skates from Goodwill. Any parent who's had to pay for a kid's hockey lessons will get a shell-shocked look when recounting how much the equipment cost - and woe to the parent whose child wants to be the goalie! A decent pair of speed skates starts around $2000 - the same price as just the leg pads for a goalie in hockey.
Second, we have incidental costs associated with training: facilities, transportation, and competition costs. Athletes often need access to specialized facilities that will charge entry - ski hills, ice rinks, and bobsled tracks. If this isn't already included in training costs, this can be anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars per year. And, while some families move to be closer to their aspiring athlete's regular training sites, most athletes need to be ready to travel long distances for their sport. Travel to competition at anything but the local level can be time-consuming and expensive - especially if you're lugging around that expensive specialized equipment. Then once you arrive, there are registration fees for competitions, and the cost of accommodations within reasonable distance of the event site. Sports like figure skating also judge competitors on their outfits, which can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars. Repeat this for many years of amateur competition, and it can quickly add up.
Third, we have the much more abstract opportunity costs associated with high-level athleticism. Because of the time they spend training and competing, athletes often have to forego other opportunities for education or specialized job training. This is much harder to quantify, because it translates into money that doesn't get earned by pursuing a different, non-athletic path. For athletes who experience success both during and after the Olympics, this may not be such a big deal, but for athletes in sports where sponsorships are less lucrative or harder to come by, it may mean decreased earning potential later in life, after their competing days are over.
Fourth, we have costs that weren't paid for by the athlete, but by their governments, sporting organizations, and other bodies that help subsidize the costs of facilities, training, equipment, and other incidentals. Bobsled tracks are not common features of public sports facilities, but rely on government or private funding to keep them operational. Training costs associated with national team members - including coaches, facilities, competitions, and travel - can run around $200,000 per person. These costs are often the largest sums, but least likely to be borne by the individual athletes. Some sports also benefit from cutting-edge scientific research into stronger, sleeker, faster materials that can shave precious milliseconds off an athlete's time. In sports like speed skating, this type of specialized uniform can mean the difference between a gold medal and not even qualifying.
So when we add it all up, it likely costs hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get an athlete to the point where they are competing at the Olympics. There are exceptions to this, of course - take 1960 gold medallist Abebe Bikila, who set a world record in the marathon while running barefoot. But while his equipment costs were pretty minimal and he had trained solo for much of his life, the Ethiopian government still hired a special coach to train members of the Imperial Guard to get them to Olympic calibre. Marathon is still one of the most cost-efficient sports for athletes, but even it can cost thousands of dollars. The Winter Olympics equivalent to marathon would be curling, where the only specialized equipment consists of brooms and slippery shoes, but there are still costs associated with endurance training, facilities rentals, and competition costs - a bargain at a bit over $120,000 per year per team, though most of this is picked up by national sporting agencies.
In the end, it would be a poor financial choice to get into Olympic sports for the money. When you are watching athletes compete, remember that most of them have spent countless hours and thousands of dollars in training, equipment, and other costs just to get there. For many athletes, the thrill of competition and love of their sport is what drew them to the games, and what keeps them going.