Is the International Olympic Committee Failing Olympic Athletes Worldwide?

By: Andrew Kemmer

The 2016 Rio Olympics were the richest in Olympic history.[1] TV companies paid more than $4 billion to televise it.[2] NBCUniversal alone made $1.2 billion on the Rio Olympics and over $800 million on the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and expects to surpass that total for the winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February.[3] The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is the independent organization that runs the Olympic games, and funds Olympic programs worldwide.[4] The IOC made $540 million on Rio alone, and as of December 31, 2016, the IOC had a fund balance of $2.1 Billion, and a self-described strong financial position.[5] IOC executives live well. The president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, receives an “allowance”[6] of over $250,000, and free rent in a 5-star hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland (the headquarters of the IOC), which is worth at least $390,000 a year.[7] Bach and other executive get a cash per diem of either $450 or $900 per day for any IOC business, including the Olympic games.[8] Better than their salary is their perks, which include free flights, meals, and hotels, and that is on top of the per diem they receive.[9]

The IOC states that 90 percent of its revenue “is redistributed to the wider sporting world,” totaling $3.25 million sent every day to “help athletes and sports organizations” worldwide.[10] That total is deceptive as, even in the United States, the vast majority of Olympic athletes live in poverty.[11] Usain Bolt, the charismatic global icon for the games, is a massive outlier among Olympians both for his world records and for his fame and wealth. His sponsorship with Puma is worth $10 million per year.[12] But his prize money from 2015 was barely a tenth of what Novak Djokovic made playing tennis,[13] and Bolt is the only Olympian on the “Forbes top 100 sports rich list” who is famous because of the Olympics.[14] The average US athlete makes just over $16,000 a year, and Canadian athletes spend almost $14,000 more per year than they make.[15]

Much of the 90 percent that the IOC redistributes is given to national Olympic federations to distribute how they see fit; the federations are not mandated to give it to athletes. As little as six percent of IOC funding gets to athletes as direct payments.[16] In contrast, athletes in the English Premier League and all of the major American sports (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) receive over half of their league’s revenues.[17] A large percentage of the money that the United States Olympic Committee receives goes to Olympic training centers in Colorado Springs, Lake Placid, and San Diego, but the vast majority of athletes who use the centers are aspiring Olympians (as opposed to current Olympians) and foreign athletes, who largely have to pay for the services anyway.[18] Cyrus Hostetler used to train at the San Diego training center. He has been one of the best javelin throwers in the country since he graduated from the University of Oregon in 2010.[19] Despite making the 2012 Olympics, in 2015 he was told that his funding to train at the training center was being pulled because he was not good enough to medal at the Olympics.[20] He is, to this day, one of the three best javelin throwers in the US, yet USA Track & Field refuses to support him.[21] He says that the most he has ever made in a season, after expenses, is $3,000.[22] The IOC and the USOC have not given him the opportunity to practice his sport.

Olympic athletes are international ambassadors for their countries. The purpose of the Olympics is to bring together “sport . . . culture and education,”[23] and the countries of the world in order to usher in a more peaceful future.[24] The Olympic Charter specifically states the importance of “preserving human dignity,” and it says everyone should have the opportunity to practice sport.[25] Certainly, even for highly talented athletes, the opportunity is not there, and one can argue that athletes are not being treated with dignity. For American Olympic athletes, Cyrus Hostetler is the rule rather than the exception. Many collegiate All-Americans never even get the opportunity to compete for an Olympic spot because the choice is between that and feeding themselves.[26]

These issues are a direct result of the model that the IOC has created. An athlete’s pay is determined entirely by what their country decides to give them.[27] The IOC does not give a penny to athletes who win medals; each country determines if it wants to pay its athletes.[28] That has led to the emergence of countries like Bahrain and Qatar on the Olympic stage.[29] Athletes are defecting there from other countries (primarily African countries) in order to be paid better.[30] Bahrain pays its athletes $500,000 for a gold medal, Kenya pays $10,000, Great Britain pays nothing,[31] and the United States pays $25,000.[32] Kenya had thirty runners competing for different countries in Rio because “[t]here [is] no support in Kenya,” and running for Bahrain allowed distance runner Ruth Jebet to pay for her siblings’ schooling and “put a roof over her family’s home.”[33] In Cuba the athletes have to pay the government a steep portion of any winnings, and there are stories of athletes selling their Olympic medals because they have no money.[34] Even the former world record holder in the 110 meter hurdles, Dayron Robles, quit the Cuba national team in 2013 because of poor resources. The country demands results but does not give athletes the help they need.[35]

While it might sound like the problem is the countries, I believe the IOC should take more responsibility for the athletes competing under the Olympic banner. As stated before, the Olympic Charter states that everyone should have the opportunity to compete in sport. Additionally, the charter states that “the athletes . . . interests constitute a fundamental element of the Olympic Movement’s action.”[36] The IOC must uphold the Olympic Charter. It is certainly not within the athletes’ interests to be poverty-stricken, yet that is exactly what the IOC is promoting by giving nations discretion when it comes to paying athletes. The IOC’s ambivalence on the matter is more egregious when considering the great salary and perks that it gives to its executives. The engine that keeps international sport alive, the athletes, can barely keep running on the resources that it is given. The IOC already gives 90 percent of its revenue away to sport, but it could make meaningful change in the lives of athletes and the quality of sport if it were to give more of that money directly to athletes as payment, or mandate that national Olympic federations give a certain percentage directly to its athletes.



[1] Ben Chapman, Rio 2016: The Richest Games in 120 Years of Olympic History, Independent (Aug. 4, 2016),

[2] Id.

[3] Jason Lynch, NBC Sports Expects More Than $1.2 Billion in Ad Revenue From the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics, AdWeek (Oct. 30, 2017),

[4] See The International Olympic Committee, (last visited Jan. 7, 2018).

[5] IOC, IOC Annual Report 2016: Credibility, Sustainability, and Youth,

[6] The IOC president and other members receive an allowance in lieu of a salary, since they are considered volunteers. AP, IOC Releases Compensation Figures for Bach and Members, USA Today (Apr 2, 2015),

[7] Will Hobson, Olympic Executives Cash in on a “Movement” That Keeps Athletes Poor, The Washington Post (July 30, 2016), Most presidents choose to live there year-round. Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. Executives are not paid as well as at FIFA, for example, but their perks are better.

[10] Id.

[11] Hobson supra note 7.

[12] Ben Chapman, Rio 2016: The Richest Games in 120 Years of Olympic History, Independent (Aug. 4, 2016),

[13] Tennis players, basketball players, and golfers are the exception to poor Olympic athletes. Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.; Hobson, supra note 7.

[18] Hobson, supra note 7.

[19] Hobson, supra note 7.

[20] Id.

[21] In addition to the 2012 Olympics, he has qualified for the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 World Championships. Cyrus Hostetler: Athlete Profile, IAAF, (last visited Jan. 8, 2018).

[22] Hobson, supra note 7.

[23] IOC, Olympic Charter at 11, in force as from September 15, 2017,

[24] Id. (“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”). 

[25] Id.

[26] After Johnny Dutch, who had the fastest time in the world in the 400 meter hurdles, failed to qualify for the US Olympic team in 2016, he tweeted that he might retire because he had no money, no shoe contract, and “no job.” Jere Longman and Joe Ward, Olympic Cover-Up: Why You Don’t See Some Shoe Logos, NY Times (Aug. 2, 2016),

[27] Other than sponsorships, but only the very best and most famous athletes get those. There are roughly 15,000 athletes who compete at the Olympic games, and almost none of them are Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Adam Taylor, Here’s How Much Olympic Athletes Really Get Paid, Business Insider (July 19, 2012),

[28] Id; Brian Mureithi, Why Kenyan Athletes are Switching Allegiance, Daily Nation (Aug. 18, 2016),

[29] Qatar had 39 athletes in 2016, and 23 of them were born in another country.

[30] Murad Ahmed, Nations in Search of “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities,” Financial Times (Dec. 13, 2017),

[31] Mureithi, supra note 28.

[32] Chris Smith, American Olympians Fighting For $25,000 Gold Medal Bonuses At Rio Olympics, Forbes (Aug. 4, 2016),

[33] Drazen Jorgic & Isaack Omulo, Bahraini Overtures to Kenya-Born Runners Attract Medals, Controversy, Reuters (Aug. 17, 2016),

[34] Dvora Meyers, Former Cuban Gymnastics Prodigy Talks About Talent-Tiered Cafeterias at Olympic Training Center, Deadspin (Sept. 20, 2017), While defecting from Cuba is often politicized, sometimes athletes do it simply because the country is too poor to support them.

[35] Morgan Campbell, Cuba’s Track Federation Allows Athletes Autonomy Over Sponsorships, Toronto Star (Feb. 22, 2015),

[36] Olympic Charter at 15