Cashing in on Olympic glory
Australian snowboarder Torah Bright is perfectly positioned to capitalise if she succeeds again in Sochi. Photo: Reuters
Olympic athletes aren't renowned for their personal wealth. Most juggle work with onerous training schedules and are lucky if they can scratch together enough money to reach their next event.
Only a handful of Australia's Winter Olympic team competing at Sochi this week are “professional” athletes – mostly thanks to government funding and sponsorships.
The rest fundraise, borrow money and rely on the generosity of family and friends. Bobsleigh athlete Gareth Nichols is an engineer in the mining industry, cross-country skier Aimee Watson is a vet, and freestyle skier Amy Sheehan writes children's books.
For them and many of their teammates, medal-winning success can open doors and purse-strings upon their return home that will secure their next few years of competition – if their managers are smart enough to cash in on lucrative sponsorship opportunities.
There are exceptions to every rule, though, with a number of athletes arriving to contest the Sochi Winter Olympics having already amassed large personal fortunes.
Australia's wealthiest Winter Olympian didn't make his money from sport. Canadian-born mogul skier Dale Begg-Smith, a gold medallist in Torino and silver medallist in Vancouver, is a software entrepreneur who drives a $300,000 Lamborghini and lives in the tax haven of the Cayman Islands. The notoriously media-shy athlete's net worth has been reported as anything up to $40 million.
Conversely, US snowboarder and dual Olympic gold medallist Shaun White's estimated net worth of more than $20 million has been built around his athletic exploits. He is so feted that his sponsors build private halfpipes around the world for his exclusive use. If he lands a third gold medal in the halfpipe competition at Sochi – he has controversially withdrawn from the slopestyle competition he could double that figure on his return to the US.
American ski racer Bode Miller has won three silvers, a gold and a bronze medal across a decorated Olympic career, with a lucrative Nike sponsorship helping to line his pockets to the tune of an estimated $8 million. The 36-year-old party boy is hoping to make the podium – and one final payday – in what is expected to be his final Olympics.
Fellow US teammate Ted Ligety is said to be worth $2 million. The alpine racer and Olympic gold medallist leveraged his success on the slopes to found a snow sports eyewear and helmet company, Shred Optics, that will likely keep him in the top tax bracket long after his podium days are over.
Kim Yu Na
Meanwhile, in Korea, figure skater Kim Yu Na is said to earn $9 million a year from prizemoney, sponsorship and endorsements. She will be competing in her second Winter Olympics at Sochi after winning gold in Vancouver, and is the first female skater to win the Olympics, world championships, Four Continents championship and the Grand Prix final.
Winning gold isn't a guarantee of riches and endorsements, and sometimes a dash of controversy can have the same effect. Steven Bradbury famously achieved both, winning gold at Salt Lake City in 2002 in short-track speed skating after the rest of the pack fell over. He has since carved out a career in public speaking and media opportunities, penning a book and accepting a rumoured $100,000 sponsorship deal with computer firm BenQ as well as $20,000 from Australia Post for his image on a stamp in the year after his win.
Snowboarder Torah Bright is perfectly positioned to cash in on success in Sochi if she can back up her gold medal in Vancouver with another from the three events she will contest. Her success, clean-cut image and winning smile have already helped her ink a six-year global deal with surf and ski brand Roxy, and success in Sochi would bring a raft of new offers.
Australian aerialist Lydia Lassila also won gold in Vancouver and like Bright, is going back for more in Sochi. Since the last Olympics, Lassila has created her own brand of cold therapy packs, Body Ice, and is an ambassador for car company Suzuki who supply her with a Grand Vitara to drive.
Other top-rated medal chances for Sochi include Russ Henshaw and Anna Segal for ski slopestyle, Alex Pullin and Jarryd Hughes for snowboard cross, Scotty James for snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle, and Begg-Smith for moguls.
There is also a good chance that an underdog will overperform, or someone will “do a Bradbury” to rise from obscurity and grab both gold and a chance to profit from the commercial opportunities that will follow.
Most Olympians are not in it for the money, though, but it does help. Representing your country on the world stage pays off in other ways - pride, honour and a lifetime of stories to tell. No, you can't pay your mortgage with pride, but you can bet your bank manager will be thrilled by your Olympic tales.
Rachael Oakes-Ash is reporting on the Sochi Olympics at her website.