Five-ring Circus

Some Countries Offer Their Olympic Medalists More Than Glory

Military exemptions. Fancy cars. Houses direct from the president.

A woman on the left in formal attire receives a bouquet of flowers from an older man on the right wearing a suit.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko awards Russian two-time silver medalist swimmer Yulia Yefimova with the Order of Honour during a ceremony at the Kremlin on Aug. 25, 2016, in Moscow. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Few feats in sports earn athletes as much glory and respect as winning an Olympic medal. But what else does it earn them?

The International Olympic Committee’s Rule 40 severely limits which sponsors and partners athletes can promote at the Games, and many athletes have had a difficult time profiting off their Olympic experience. Several have actually gone into debt competing in the Olympics—like former UFC star Ronda Rousey, who became homeless a few months after winning a judo bronze medal in the 2008 Beijing Games. As a result, some countries have instituted government-backed incentives for medal winners, to encourage greater participation and, in turn, the drive to win national bragging rights. Unfortunately, this exacerbates the inequality of the Olympics—only some countries have enough disposable athletic funding to dole out payments to anyone who trains or wins medals.

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Some international leaders have taken the prizes to new levels. In 2016, along with straight cash, the Russian government gave away luxury cars, apartments, and a literal racehorse to various winners for the country at the Rio Games. (Ironically, most Olympians couldn’t afford to own and maintain such cars. So, they sold ’em—which while totally understandable, feels a little like kicking a gift horse in the mouth.) At the same Olympiad, German medalists got a lifetime supply of beer, and Belarusian winners received a stockpile of sausage. Yahoo Finance reports that those delicious prizes remain on offer in Tokyo.

Making the podium isn’t always the financial—or gustatory—windfall you might expect, especially if you compete in a rather niche sport, like say, race walking. Or steeplechase. Or those athletes in 1908 who competed in pistol dueling. (Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton neglected to mention you could go pro in that.) But some nations have made sure that their athletes will get paid handsomely for capturing Olympic glory, in cash and otherwise. Here’s what winners around the world can take home—along with their gold, silver, or bronze.

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Some countries absolutely pile on the cash. Take Singapore, one of the richest nations in the world as measured by GDP per capita, which doles out massive payments to medal winners. Gold medalists for the island nation make around $737,000, and payouts even for bronze medals top $180,000. Italy has also adopted a model of massive payouts—although a little less than Singapore. For the Tokyo Olympics, Italian gold medalists receive €180,000 for their victory, with smaller prizes for silver and bronze. Ecuador set a $100,000 reward for any athlete who could win gold—so congrats to champion road cyclist Ricard Carapáz on his new stacks.

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The Philippines promised roughly $200,000 in prize money to any gold medal winner on top of additional allowances that the government approved ahead of these Games. And the San Miguel Corporation—a large Filipino conglomerate—announced in mid-July that it would match the government’s donation amount for every gold medalist. Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz will benefit from this match, as she won the country’s first gold medal ever last week—a feat the country has chased since its first Olympic delegation attended the 1924 Paris Games. But Diaz isn’t just getting this payday. Other Filipino companies are giving her thousands more in cash to go along with it. She’s also receiving free lifetime flights on AirAsia Philippines, a house courtesy of President Rodrigo Duterte—plus at least three more homes that companies and benefactors have promised her. Phoenix Petroleum is also honoring her medal with free fuel for life. Not a bad haul!

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These totals absolutely dwarf payments from Olympic committees like that of the United States. The U.S. only pays out $37,500 to gold medal winners, $22,500 for silver, and $15,000 for bronze. The U.S. payout structure is similar to other countries in the Americas like Brazil and Chile, which offer financial incentives in the tens-of-thousands range. And instead of a onetime jackpot, Malaysia, Estonia, and Indonesia promise their winning athletes decades of subsidies. Malaysian gold medalists receive roughly $1,200 in monthly payments for life, Estonian winners receive €4,600 a year, and Indonesian champions get an $18,000-a-year retirement plan.

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South Korea’s podium prize might be the most practical: The country enforces one of the world’s longest forced military service conscription policies in the world. All males in South Korea are drafted into 18 months of mandatory military service following their training. Written into Article 39 of the Korean constitution, this provision is hard to avoid—unless, say, you’re a K-pop star specially recommended for exemption by the Ministry of Culture. For elite athletes, there’s a loophole: win a medal at the Olympics or the Asian Games. Some of the Korean public wonder if too many athletes are gaining exemptions—skepticism that the Washington Post found was even more marked when the program was extended to specific finishes in the World Cup and other athletic events.

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Still, these exemptions can be critical for prolonging an athlete’s career. Take the example of Sangmoon Bae—a two-time winner on the PGA Tour—who had to enlist in the military in 2015. Since getting out of the service in 2017, Bae has missed about half of his cuts and now only ranks No. 958 in the world—quite a drop-off for someone who ranked as high as 26th during his career. Bae explained that he “lost [his] feel how to play golf. Not how to swing—I forgot how to play golf.” Soccer star Son Heung-min got an exemption, too, after the South Korean national soccer team won the gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Son only had to attend basic training, which was doable during the English Premier League’s offseason—rather than fulfill the full-length of the typical 21-month military requirement, which would have put him in breach of his contract with his club, Tottenham Hotspur.

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Multiple Korean athletes have already earned themselves a pass in Tokyo: 17-year-old Kim Je-deok, who won multiple medals in the archery competition; the gold-winning fencers on the men’s sabre team; and gymnast Shin Jea-hwan, who took home the gold in men’s vault.

Like the Philippines, Hong Kong also won its first ever gold medal during the 2020 Olympics, in dramatic fashion—and the territory decided to break the bank to celebrate. Cheung Ka-long won a tense individual foil fencing match against one of the top ranked men in the world, Alessio Foconi of Italy, to advance to the quarterfinals. In the quarters, Cheung made a stirring 5-point comeback against the Russian Olympic Committee’s Kirill Borodachev to advance to the medal rounds. Cheung captured the attention of the Hong Kong media—including live analysis from the independent Hong Kong paper the South China Morning Post—and he won a sizable payout after triumphing: HK$5 million. (If my Google currency conversion is correct, that’s northward of $600,000.) The MTR Corporation (Hong Kong’s transit rail operator) is also providing the winner with a lifetime of free train rides around the city. Must be nice to never have to load up your transit card again, although he could afford to after collecting his gold medal ransom. As a nod to the rest of the team that made it to Tokyo, every Hong Kong athlete at the Games is also receiving free train rides for a year.

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If you’re competing for Team China, the government is moving away from cash prizes. Following issues with corruption and cheating at the Olympics and Asian Games, the country’s General Administration of Sport promised to drop prizes to provincial governments for their local medalists’ wins, to curb the prevalence of both corruption and cheating. The nation also dropped rewards for team officials. However, some individual prizes remain: The Chinese government partnered with Tim Yip (aka Ye Jintian), a renowned visual artist and Oscar-winning designer, to create “Champion Dragon Clothes” for athletes to wear on the podium. So, the Chinese medalists will at least be fashionable.

And Russian winners? They do receive a lifetime government pension, which may have played a role in gymnast Artur Dalaloyan competing in Tokyo three months after rupturing an Achilles. But, due to the nation’s massive doping scandal, medalists won’t get to hear their national anthem when they scale the podium.

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Instead, the ROC winners will be treated to the golden tones of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, which, depending on your musical tastes, could be a nice prize itself—or if your preferences are more like mine, maybe a punishment.

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