That's the lesson learned from a survey conducted by Jack Wickens, board member for the USA Track & Field Foundation (USATFF) and regular blogger. After analyzing data from various sources—USTAF grant applications and hundreds of interviews with athletes and agents—Wickens attempted to compute the total earnings (including sponsorship, prize money and grants) of track and field Olympic hopefuls.
He found that just 20 percent of the U.S. athletes who rank in the top 10 of their respective events make more than $50k each year, while 50 percent of this same group of elite athletes make less than $15,000 (which, for perspective, is less than the average fast-food worker). As for athletes ranking number 11 or below? Better pick up a day job, because there's no cash to be had.
Wickens also breaks down how the compensation structure is set up (in a pyramid, with the top athletes in popular events—such as the marathon—making a decent living while others are left with very little), some reasons that this is the case (the business of sponsorship, a general lack of appreciation for track and field athletes) and what this is doing to the sport in the long-term (discouraging talented kids from pursuing professional track).
It doesn't seem right to round out this post without making the most obvious comparison about the nature of professional athletics: Guys who sit on the bench of NFL teams—who are, by no means, top 10 in their sport—turn on their facuets in the mornings to have money come pouring out (Editor's note: this might be a slight exaggeration). The most elite track and field athletes, on the other hand, are left to fend for themselves in terms of just getting by. Sure, there are a lot of arguments about why this has evolved and whether it's right or wrong, but the more you stop to think about it, the more one question keeps bubbling to the surface: what gives?