As a decathlete, Jeremy Taiwo needs different shoes for nearly every event. He has high jump shoes and long jump shoes. He has shoes for sprinting and shoes for distance running. He needs three different pairs for shot put, javelin and discus. Then he needs special spikes for his shoes for the pole vault.
There’s weekly massage therapy. There are coaches’ fees and travel costs. There’s nutrition — an aspiring Olympic athlete in training doesn’t grab a cheap meal at the fast-food drive-thru — and Taiwo must consume daily the caloric intake of several average men.
For Taiwo, 26, who grew up outside Seattle, the expenses were a constant stress, and sometimes, when money was tight, it was hard to remember if all the struggle was worth it.
This is the reality for many Olympic athletes. Being one of the best in the world at an Olympic sport comes at a price.
Many athletes scrimp and save, and look for ways to raise money on their own. They take side jobs, but their full-time occupation is training, and their bodies need rest. Dick’s Sporting Goods started a program last year to hire Olympic athletes to work in its stores, offering a generous hourly wage and flexible schedules. Taiwo got one of those jobs but had to cut back to once a week because of his training schedule.
More than 100 athletes have started GoFundMe pages asking for donations for new gear, to fly family to Rio for the Games, which begin Aug. 5, and for general living expenses. Taiwo was among them.
Since launching his fundraiser last year, he has raised $18,331, surpassing his goal of $15,000. That money, most of which he said he’s already spent, has allowed him to focus on his training.
“I can’t express — I just, I felt beyond grateful and I felt I didn’t deserve it, but I also felt a lot of pressure,” Taiwo said in an interview Tuesday. “These people are helping me and giving me their money. What if I don’t make the team? What if I don’t realize my dream?”
Major surgeries on his elbow and pubic bone kept him from competing for a spot in the 2012 Summer Games in London. He said he couldn’t bring himself to watch the trials while recovering, emotionally broken that he’d worked his whole life for a moment he was missing. But friends and family encouraged him to keep striving. So he pushed himself to walk, and when that no longer hurt, he started to jog. Before long he was running, sprinting, jumping and throwing again.
“If there is a will, there is a way, and these people believe in my perseverance and hard work,” he said about the 152 people who had donated money. “There is no excuse now. I had the resources, I just had to do it and go for it.”
It paid off Sunday when Taiwo secured his place on the U.S. team, finishing second in the decathlon at the trials in Eugene.
In 2014, ESPN wrote about Olympic athletes’ financial struggles. “There are many athletes fighting to stay above the poverty line,” said Nathan Crumpton, who served on the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council on revenue allocation.
Although superstars in such high-profile sports as swimming and gymnastics can sign endorsement deals that pay six figures, and winning a medal does come with a (taxed) cash prize, generally there’s not a lot of money coming in for Olympic athletes. And only a fraction of the USOC’s budget goes to modest stipends for direct athlete support.
And for lesser-watched sports there’s almost no money allocated, let alone aid for the athletes. Jennifer Wu, for example, plays table tennis. In Beijing, where she’s from, it’s a highly regarded sport, but not in the United States. Wu wasn’t confident that she could make the Olympics with the Chinese team, so she moved to the United States eight years ago with the goal of becoming a citizen and joining Team USA. She moved to New York not knowing a word of English but studied hard between her four to five hours of almost daily practice.
Wu, 26, is headed to Rio, but she, too, struggles with finances. She coaches for extra income, but that cuts into her training. She started a GoFundMe page for money to train and compete back in China, where she can hone her skills among the greatest in the sport. She’s raised $9,810 toward her $25,000 goal.
“China is the best in the world; it’s like the NBA is here, so very popular, everyone loves to watch, everyone loves to play, but I will try my best,” Wu said. “I don’t want to just go [to Rio] for fun, I want to do my best.”
Mark Dyreson, a Pennsylvania State University professor and expert on the Olympics, said athletes do have financial burdens, but they are better off than the competitors from several decades ago who weren’t allowed to accept any outside monetary support.
“Athletes from working-class backgrounds, without financial means, have always struggled, but it’s better than it was,” he said. “They do face some challenges and they make great stories during the Olympics because they are the ones we relate to, the ones who have daily struggles like we do.”
Once GoFundMe noticed how many athletes were using the crowdfunding site, it started a friendly competition in which the campaign that raises the most money before the end of July will receive an additional $10,000 from the company.
As of now, that extra cash would go to heavyweight wrestler Kyle Snyder, who sought donations to fly his family to Rio to see him compete for the first time on the U.S. team. The 20-year-old from Woodbine, Md., raised more than $25,000.
Snyder’s situation is a bit different. As a wrestler at Ohio State University, he is subject to NCAA rules and is not allowed to accept outside money for his own use, but he received permission to raise money for his family’s expenses. Any leftover money must go to a charity of his choice. He said he’s planning to give it to a veterans group.
With the money raised, he’s able to send his parents, three siblings, grandparents, two uncles and two aunts to watch him compete. He said he couldn’t imagine winning the gold medal — which he plans to do — without his family there to cheer him on.
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