Athletes dedicate their entire careers to the chance of winning an Olympic medal. Given the four-year Olympic cycle, many athletes only have one or two shots to be selected by their National Organizing Committee and represent the nation, so they often spare no expense when it comes to preparing for selection and competition.
Many aspiring and current Olympians call Utah home. The high altitude, diverse climate types, well-connected airport, and easy access to the outdoors make the state a mecca for both winter and summer athletes. As a result, training facilities have popped up to accommodate their needs. Woodward Park City, for one, is the official training venue for the USA’s Winter Olympics athletes until at least 2025.
As anyone with an Ikon pass will tell you, skiing is far from cheap—and competing at the highest level costs athletes significant amounts of money. For some, this will result in a payout in the form of prize money at non-Olympic events, sponsor endorsements, and celebrity appearance fees. For others, a trip to the games might result in an Olympic mountain of debt. Household names like Sean White, for instance, will benefit from endorsements, speaking gigs, and sponsorships. Those without three gold medals to their name will find things a little harder and might not have much support beyond gear.
For this reason, the exact cost differs from athlete to athlete. While most athletes can rely on a sponsor to cover the cost of their skis, clothing, and boots, they are more likely to be left footing the bill for services such as nutrition advice, sports psychology, physiotherapy, health insurance that lets them see the best sports medicine doctors, housing, and the costs of day-to-day life. And for serious skiers who want to make the games their goal, a 40-hour workweek isn’t exactly compatible with the amount of training required. This means that they either need some serious savings or the support of a sponsor to keep them out of debt.
Anouk Patty, chief of sport at US Ski and Snowboard and a former athlete, explains that once selected for USA Skiing’s long list, athletes can enjoy the support of the federation, which provides coaching as well as services like nutritional advice and sports psychology. “Once an athlete is named to our elite teams (Alpine A-C teams, Snowboard/Freeski/Pro Teams, and Freestyle A or B teams), they are fully funded,” he says. “We cover the cost of training during the preparation period as well as all competition costs during the season. That means for both prep and competition, we cover all coaching, travel, lodging, meals, race fees, visas, etc.”
This can save an athlete tens of thousands of dollars in costs, especially when they might spend their summer training away from home in the southern hemisphere.
At the Center of Excellence in Park City, athletes have access to a wide variety of services provided by the United States Olympic Committee, including free access to the slopes at both Copper Mountain and Woodward. At the training center, they can also train with teammates and benefit from a supportive atmosphere—no small gain for an athlete who has to make huge sacrifices to be at the top of their game for the highest level of competition in the world.
The center is “a veritable playground for these athletes,” according to Patty. Its facilities include “an outdoor vert ramp, fitness equipment, trampolines, an indoor skate ramp and fish bowl, basketball court, and all the physical testing equipment.”
There is also a gym, where athletes will undertake their assigned strength and conditioning workouts, and a cafeteria where they eat for free according to meal plans designed by expert sports nutritionists. In addition, athletes can expect to have clothing for the slopes, the gym, and the few hours a day when they are not exercising provided by the team and its sponsors.
If athletes get a free ride once they “make it” before selection, things are a little different. Alice Merryweather, a Winter Olympian and Park City resident who has been on the US Ski and Snowboard team since 2015, explains that the costs start racking up pretty early in life. “Just to progress to a high enough level to make the national team, many young skiers will attend ski academies for high school,” she says.
Merryweather was clear that this wasn’t the only route onto the team, though it seems to be a common one. Stratton Mountain School in Vermont has sent 46 alumni to the games, and it doesn’t come cheap. “Tuition to these schools can be anywhere from $40-60,000 a year,” Merryweather says. According to the school’s website, 2022-2023 tuition costs $63,500 a term with room and board. By the time an athlete is out of high school, they might have already spent the cost of a four-year college education.
After school, many athletes go on to college to earn a degree while they chase their Olympic dreams. Universities generally have a great infrastructure for athletes, even if they can also be pretty expensive. Merryweather is a student at Dartmouth, which does not award athletic scholarships. She says that, depending on her schedule, she has “at least $20,000 in tuition due to Dartmouth each year. It’s $20,000 per term, and I usually do one or two terms a year.”
Gear, she explains, is generally covered by sponsors once an athlete reaches the international level, though that income depends on results, which can make these funds unreliable. “Most skiers and snowboarders do have multiple equipment sponsors,” Merryweather says. “Usually, the money involved there is slim or only in a victory schedule.”
And what if an athlete gets injured? Merryweather was recovering from an ACL surgery when we emailed. Now that she is on the team, she is covered by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s health insurance, which helps keep the bills to a minimum, but she still has a few thousand dollars outstanding in medical costs from the four surgeries she’s had over the past year.
Patty explains that injuries are far from uncommon in dangerous sports like downhill skiing and snowboarding. “The nature of our sports is that many athletes face injuries,” he says. “Thus, we offer full sports medicine services.”
These include much more than access to a doctor—there is also PT, guided rehab, and nutrition and strength program planning so that athletes can return to peak performance as fast as possible.
In addition to tuition, training, and medical bills, Merryweather has the everyday costs any non-athlete might have without the day job to support it. Rent, food, getting around, and training or equipment costs not covered by her sponsors add another $20,000 per year to her spending. These generally come out of her own pocket, funded by cash endorsements or prize money. Merryweather says some of these costs can be covered by something called a headgear sponsor.
“This denotes the company or brand that you’ll see across the front of some athletes’ helmets, right above the goggles,” she explains. “These are usually the primary sponsors of each athlete, and they’re typically cash-based rather than gear-based. These can be quite lucrative for high-ranking athletes, but for most, they provide a few thousand dollars toward subsistence and training costs. These are sought out by athletes themselves and aren’t usually associated with the US Team in any way.”
Although once banned by the Olympics, these contracts are now very common and can make a big difference for athletes in successful years. Meanwhile, years blighted by injury and bad luck can be financially difficult.
And then there’s housing—even athletes who make it to the Center of Excellence do not receive room and board. “The Utah Olympic Park recently put in a housing unit for athletes, coaches, and Utah Olympic Park staff, but it’s not free,” Merryweather explains. She went on to say that the high cost of housing in Park City leads many athletes to travel long distances each training day. “Most rents in Park City are well over $1,000 per month, even for studio apartments, so housing is easily US ski teamers’ highest expense. Some athletes, myself included, find cheaper rents down in Salt Lake City and commute to and from Park City for training.”
Merryweather is fortunate enough to have the support of the US Ski Team and estimates that her costs would easily top $100,000 without that support.
If the costs of becoming an Olympic skier seem prohibitive, there are a few hacks that can make it more accessible. I grew up in the UK where, like in much of the world, Olympic training and competition are supported by government funds and a national lottery. This is not the case in the US, where national governing bodies like US Ski and Snowboard must raise their own funds from sponsorship and membership fees.
During the Winter Olympics, it is not uncommon for athletes to also be members of their nation’s militaries. The British Army offers scholarships, support, and greater leniency with scheduling for world-class athletes. The US army has a similar program—it sent nine athletes to Beijing. As part of the US program, athletes are able to train full-time with military and civilian coaches while also keeping up with their job requirements and serving in publicity and recruiting roles. These programs offer support for athletes who are just below the Olympic level and absorb some of the costs of living and training that come with preparing for trials.
Of course, many Olympic sports, like biathlon and modern pentathlon, were designed to test the abilities of a soldier and so it makes sense that soldiers still compete.
If Olympians meet with success, they can expect a payout, though the amount varies by country. The USA pays a gold medal winner $37,500, while Hong Kong pays $642,000 to any athlete who makes it to the podium. For most athletes, the winnings don’t justify the cost of getting there. A study conducted in 2011 showed that 50 percent of Team USA track and field athletes who placed in the top 10 for their discipline nationally earned less than $15,000 per year. Many of them work side hustles as coaches or rely on grants to scrape by.
Wherever their support comes from, and however much they pay out of their own pockets, the Olympic games demand a huge sacrifice. Most athletes will compete in only one game, and for many, it will be the highlight of their career. They will battle through injury and miss important events in the lives of their friends and families in order to make it to the opening ceremony. But for the ones who make it to the podium, that moment is priceless.
James has hiked, climbed, bikepacked, and paddled across the Western USA, Europe, South American, and Africa. In order to fund that, he is a freelance investigative journalist and adjunct professor of Modern World History.
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