Feb. 4, 2014 at 10:06 AM ET
When the Olympics open in Sochi later this week, a select few U.S. Olympians will be arriving with multimillion-dollar endorsement deals and promises of more fame and fortune to come.
But many of the nation’s greatest athletes will be competing for love — and just hoping to scrape together enough money.
“There (are) very few people in curling for the money,” said Allison Pottinger, 40, an Olympic curler who figures she may break even financially on the costs of competing this year.
“At best it’s a zero-sum (game), but there are so many things you gain that aren’t monetary,” she said.
Pottinger will have plenty of company on the U.S. Olympic team. Experts say many of the nation’s top athletes are fulfilling their Olympic dreams thanks only to very hard work and a mishmash of scant funding through athletic associations, small sponsorship deals and the generosity of family, friends and even strangers.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” said Doug Blais, a sport management professor at Southern New Hampshire University.
For some athletes competing in more obscure sports, even a place on the podium won’t guarantee a financial payout.
“Even if they win gold, there is no pot of gold,” Blais said.
That may come as a surprise to Americans watching the glitz of the games on television, and seeing the familiar faces of high-profile athletes like Shaun White, whose sponsor GoPro built him a private half pipe and whose business ventures include an eponymous line of clothing.
Of course, there’s no question White and other celebrity athletes have a passion for sports too. But experts say it can be surprising to find out just how hard it is, financially, for some athletes to get to the Olympics.
“It is really a disconnection between the enormous value of the games compared to the degree to which some portion of the competitors really continue to do this for love and not for money,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University.
This year, Staurowsky said many athletes turned to online fundraising sites like RallyMe and GoFundMe to ask friends and strangers for help, often in return for things like a personalized thank you, poster or other trinket.
The financial struggles can be particularly tough for athletes who need to train for years to reach the Olympic level, and may be competing against athletes in other countries who get government funding or more generous sponsorship deals.
In Europe, the biathlon is among the most popular winter sports, said Max Cobb, president and chief executive of the US biathlon Association.
In the United States, it’s been slower to catch on — and harder to make a living at. Cobb said the best U.S. biathletes receive a maximum stipend of $2,000 a month, or $24,000 a year. They also can receive extra money for winning competitions or placing well, plus sponsorship deals.
Still, Cobb said few U.S. biathletes are getting rich off the sport — and many are sacrificing their 20s and 30s competing in biathlons instead of establishing themselves in another career.
“It’s very impressive, the commitment that the athletes are willing to make, really just for the sake of success in the sport,” he said.
The financial strain can add extra stress for the athletes, Cobb said, but he said the struggles also seem to bring the team closer together.
U.S. Olympic biathlete Lowell Bailey, 32, said being a full-time biathlete does sometimes mean getting a bit creative about where your funding comes from, but he feels fortunate to have been able to make a career out of it.
He never expected to become a millionaire, he said.
“It’s never been why I do the sport,” he said. “Honestly, I just love the sport of biathlon.”
Pottinger, the Olympic curler, said her team receives some funding through the curling association to help cover travel and other expenses. The team also gets in-kind donations such as hotel discounts or donated uniforms, and some modest sponsorship deals.
“(Our) sponsorships definitely have a lot less zeroes than the other sponsorships you see,” she said.
That means Pottinger, who is married with two young children, also has to make a living. She works in consumer insights for General Mills and uses vacation time and leaves of absence for competition. Her practice time and workouts get squeezed in late at night, early in the morning or whenever she can get away for a long lunch break.
Still, Pottinger said she has no regrets.
“I was thinking about that the other night,” she said. “I was leaving for practice late and it was cold, and I was like, ‘You know what? It’s worth it.’”