The $18 Million Dollar Man

by Casey Barrett

Sun Yang scores monster payday in China… How does that compare to his fellow loaded Olympic icons? 

He only gets to keep $6 million, ok? After becoming the greatest distance swimmer in history in London, reports are that Sun Yang just earned $18 million in endorsement riches. But not really. Swimming China earned $18 mil, thanks to Sun’s accomplishments. For their efforts on his behalf, they get to keep 66% of that rather considerable figure.

Word is that $6 mil must go to the federation itself – payback for funding Sun’s Olympic journey since childhood. The other $6 mil, that’s bound for the pockets of his fellow national teamers. According to Swim News’s Craig Lord, if those funds are distributed evenly that means that each member of China’s London Olympic swim team will receive $150,000 thanks to Sun’s historic efforts. How’s that for incentive to cheer your teammates!

Imagine for a moment if that had been the policy for Michael Phelps after his Beijing windfall… Estimates are that Phelps earned between $5 and $7 million annually in the years since Beijing. So, say $24 million over the course of the last Olympiad. A third to his ‘mates on Team USA would be $8 million. There are 52 swimmers on the USA Olympic swim team, so divide $8 million by the 51 swimmers other than Phelps. What do you get? You guessed it, about $150,000 each, same as Sun’s teammates.

Alas, Michael made that money himself, not his teammates. He has no obligation to share a penny of it. (Ok, maybe Jason Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones, Aaron Peirsol, Brendan Hansen, Ryan Lochte, Peter Vanderkaay, and Ricky Berens played a slight part in those Beijing gold… Do I have to include the prelim relay swimmers too?) You get the idea.

Not to worry, I’m not advocating socialism, communism, or any ‘ism for that matter… Just comparing the financial realities of the two greatest champions from the world’s top two swimming powers. Great achievement does not exist in a vacuum, and neither does the payoff. In China, where the collective is still king, the spoils of Olympic endorsements must be shared with those who helped get you to the top of the podium. Stateside, where capitalism remains the name of the game, those spoils are shared in different less tangible ways. But make no mistake, they are still shared.

The entire financial system of swimming was driven by Phelps for the last eight years. Ryan Lochte would not be raking in an estimated $2.5 million annually without him. The coffers of USA Swimming would not be remotely as full either. Other U.S. National teamers might not have that Athlete Assistance Program.

Of course, others will point to Phelps’s speedy soulmate on the track, Usain Bolt, and cite the uncomfortable financial realities he’s created for his sport. Before the Games, Sports Illustrated ran a feature on Bolt. They reported estimates that Usain Bolt takes up 80% of all the money in the sport of track & field. Indeed, Bolt is so economically dominant over the rest of his sport that there aren’t many spoils left to go around. Has the same been true with Phelps and swimming? Clearly not, as swimming has never been in better health, while track & field continues to languish on the sick bed.

Yet, it’s also true that many more swimmers had swimwear deals in the pre-Phelps era… They might not have amounted to much, but the ranks of the proverbial “pro swimmer” used to be more crowded. ‘Pro’ is a funny term when it comes to swimming. Does receiving funds from your federation post-college make you a pro? Does it mean you have endorsements? Or does it just mean that you’re ranked high in the world and that you continue to swim for a living.

For Sun Yang and Michael Phelps, that means living like a king. And why shouldn’t they? They’ve earned those riches. Where it all goes depends on where they come from.