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Commentary > SportsBiz
Time to pay Olympic winners
U.S. medal winners get prize money, but most Olympians are true amateurs who get nothing for a win.
August 20, 2004: 2:38 PM EDT
A weekly column by Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Jimmy Pedro won a bronze medal in judo at the Olympics earlier this week, along with a $10,000 prize from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

He shared the bronze with Leandro Guilhiero of Brazil, who got no prize money. Nor did the Russian who took home the silver.

The USOC has paid prize money to its winning Olympians since 1984, this year giving out $25,000 to gold medal winners, $15,000 to those who take home a silver and $10,000 for a bronze. Some of the richer U.S. sport federations give additional prize money to their winners as well.

Sponsors sometimes give bonuses for wins, too. Swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, would have gotten a $1 million bonus from his sponsor Speedo if he had met Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals.

Some of the U.S. athletes who are already raking in big endorsement deals, or professional salaries, may not need the USOC prize money.

American men's basketball players, for example, have pledged to donate their prize money to youth basketball programs in the United States. (Given the team's performance in Athens, let's hope those groups haven't yet spent the money earmarked for them.)

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But even many of the Americans who win will see little or no endorsement money from their success -- Nike's not going to drop big bucks on obscure sports. The prize money is an important boost for their efforts to train and be competitive in future games.

Outside the United States, the disparity is even more striking. Most winning athletes at the Olympics are still true amateurs, with no prize money and no endorsement dollars available to them when they win.

Uneven playing fields

American sports fans love to bemoan the uneven playing field in the nation's professional sports. There's no more common refrain than the one about how the Yankees and their unfair financial advantages.

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Even before the opening ceremonies begin, many Olympic athletes have already turned potential gold into green by signing sponsorship deals. Great for the athletes, but sometimes a risky bet for the companies. CNNfn's J.J. Ramberg reports.

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Imagine the outrage if the Yankees had each received their $180,889 share for losing the World Series last year, while the upstart Florida Marlins had not gotten any money from World Series ticket revenues for beating them.

Worse than that, imagine if the Marlins players had been forced to go home from the World Series and work full-time jobs for the next 11 months. What if every team but the Yankees had to squeeze in baseball and training when they could, while the New Yorkers could train full-time?

That's the case in many of the high profile sports in the Olympics. It's a reason why two economists have found that gross domestic product is almost as important to predicting a nation's Olympic success as the size of the population base from which to chose athletes.

It's long past time for the International Olympics Committee, which disperses most of the billions in broadcast and international sponsorship dollars that the games bring in, to make sure that some of this money can go directly to the athletes.

The new television contracts the IOC has negotiated include enough money to fund such a prize pool easily. NBC alone will pay $614 million for the U.S. rights to the 2006 Winter Games, or about $64 million more than it paid in Salt Lake City in 2002.

It will pay $894 million for the 2008 games in Beijing, or about $100 million more. Overseas broadcast rights and sponsorship dollars are also rising. And the money will rise even more in 2010 and 2012.

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Some IOC money is distributed to some of the poorer national teams. But it's not clear how many athletes directly benefit from the $3.7 billion that the IOC received in broadcast rights, sponsor dollars and licensing fees over the last four years.

The IOC could fund a pool paying the same $25,000/$15,000/$10,000 prize distribution from just the increase in the U.S. TV deal. There will be just under 3,000 medals awarded in Athens. Paying at that rate that the USOC pays would cost the IOC about $49.5 million total. In some of these countries, a prize of $25,000 could allow the athlete not to have to worry about anything but training until the next Olympics rolled around.

Yes, the U.S. athletes would still have tremendous financial advantages. But IOC prizes would at least provide a minimum level of support for those who need the help the most.

More than 20 years ago, the Olympics dropped the charade that it was a celebration of amateur sports. It's well past time that it drop of the amateurish policy of not paying the prize money to the athletes who make the games the financial success they have become.  Top of page

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