The United States Olympic Committee offers incentives for performance: $25,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. So Franklin, in trying to maintain her eventual college eligibility, is leaving $110,000 on the table, the money she could take for her four golds and one bronze in London.
The USOC provides support in other ways as well. In beach volleyball, for instance, the top two teams receive health insurance and a modest stipend during their season, and the top four teams receive help with travel costs. But athletes say it’s hardly enough to pursue an Olympic title and train for four years, and they have occasionally gotten creative. Nick Symmonds, a U.S. middle distance runner, auctioned off advertising space on his body this spring, earning $11,000 in return for a temporary tattoo.
“The rest is out of pocket,” said Jennifer Kessy, who won silver here in women’s beach volleyball, alongside April Ross. “We both started at the bottom with no funding, and we’ve seen it get bigger and bigger. Hopefully these medals will help future athletes for some funding.”
Which way to go?
In the few sports that prohibit true professionals, the stipend usually only covers a portion of training costs. Claressa Shields, a 17-year old from Flint, Mich., who became the first American woman to win gold in boxing, receives a monthly stipend of $1,000 and will weigh her financial opportunities as she decides whether to return for the 2016 Games or focus on a professional career.
“If USA Boxing wants to keep her around, they want to help her out, give her a little bit more,” said her coach, Jason Crutchfield, with whom Fields lives for much of the year. “Give her a little more than $1,000 a month, then she’ll stay in the ring. That’s not enough. Her being a kid, she thinks $1,000 is enough to her. She don’t pay no bills.”
Boxing, too, is preparing to move the way of basketball, albeit 20 years later. The International Boxing Association plans to introduce pro fighters in the 2016 Games. The organization has recently launched World Series of Boxing, a professional outlet that it hopes will help grow the organization. To encourage participation, more than 50 fighters who participate could be eligible to compete in Rio.
Basketball is considering a move in the opposite direction. As Bryant, James and their teammates try to win the Americans’ fifth gold medal in the six Summer Games since the best players in the world were allowed to compete in the Olympics — regardless of salary or age — there is a movement, led by NBA Commissioner David Stern, to dial back yet again. Stern’s idea: Make the Olympic tournament a 23-and-under event, better to preserve older bodies for the long NBA season and make basketball’s biannual world championships more meaningful.
Larry Probst, the chairman of the USOC, was asked Saturday about basketball’s future at the Games. He could only offer a personal opinion, because the decision will ultimately be made by NBA and IBF officials — not those directly involved in the Olympic movement.
“I personally would like to see the best players in the world,” Probst said. “And if they happen to be 35 or 37 or 27 or 19, I’d like to see us field the very best team that we could put on the court.”
Depending on the sport, whether it be throughout the London Games or those in four years in Rio de Janeiro, the very best team may or may not be present, and it could change the next time around.