More than 11,000 athletes will descend on Brazil this month to take part in the 2016 Summer Olympics. For most Olympians, it’s a grind to make a living and find time to train for their Olympic dreams. An income study of U.S. track athletes ahead of the 2012 Games found that half of athletes ranked in the top 10 of their event in the U.S. earned less than $15,000 annually from all sources of income (including sponsorships, prize money and grants).
But when the International Olympic Committee first allowed professional athletes to compete at the 1986 Summer Olympics, it opened the door to another breed of Olympic athlete: the global icon in a high-profile sport. Compare the athletes struggling to make ends meet to two other Olympic athletes at Rio — Kevin Durantand Novak Djokovic are also chasing gold this month, but they earned more than $150,000 per day over the last 12 months.
Kevin Durant leads a heavily favored U.S. basketball team at Rio. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Professionals across every sport, outside of wrestling, are now eligible for the Olympics, with boxing making the switch this year for the first time. The idea of sporting purity and amateurism at the Olympics went out the window a long time ago. There are 14 athletes competing in five sports in Brazil who made more than $18 million between June 2015 and June 2016, by Forbes’ count. Collectively they banked $447 million, or an average of $32 million, with 58% derived from sponsors.
Leading the way is NBA superstar Durant with $56.2 million. Durant won a gold medal with the 2012 U.S. men’s national team, but this is his first time as the team’s alpha dog since LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are not in Rio. The four-time scoring champ has been one of the NBA’s most beloved players since entering the league in in 2007, but this summer became the league’s newest villain after leaving Oklahoma City as a free agent to join two-time Western Conference champion Golden State.
Durant will have the NBA’s top salary next season at $26.5 million, along with a handful of other players who signed maximum-level contracts. The hefty check from the Warriors is still less than what NikeNKE -0.31% pays KD despite sales of his signature shoe declining over the past year. Durant signed a 10-year deal with Nike in 2014, when he was a sneaker free agent, worth $300 million. Durant also launched his own underwear line in partnership with Neff and Foot LockerFL +0.58% last year. Other sponsors like BBVA, 2K Sports and Beats bring his total off-court income to $36 million.
If Durant helps the U.S. win a gold medal, he’ll earn a $25,000 bonus from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Silver pays $15,000 for all U.S. athletes with a bronze worth $10,000.
Serbian tennis star Djokovic earned $55.8 million over the last 12 months from prize money, endorsements and appearance fees. The world’s top-ranked player has dominated tennis over the past six years, appearing in 18 out of 24 Grand Slam finals. He completed the career Grand Slam with his French Open win in June, but Olympic success has eluded the 12-time Slam winner so far. His lone medal was bronze in 2008. Djokovic became the first tennis player to reach $100 million in career prize money in June.
Soccer icon Neymar and Spanish tennis star Rafael Nadal both made $37.5 million during the past year. Every national soccer teams is limited to only three players over the age of 23 in the Olympics. Neymar, 24, is representing his native Brazil, which has never won Olympic soccer gold despite the country’s rich heritage in the sport. Nadal has not played a tournament in two months due to injuries, but is training in Brazil in hopes of playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles in the Olympics. Rounding out the top five is Japanese tennis ace Kei Nishikori, who should be one of the faces of the Olympics in 2020 when his home country hosts the Games in Tokyo.
The 14 top-earning Olympic athletes at Rio include eight Americans thanks to a half-dozen NBA players on the U.S. national team who pulled in more than $20 million over the past 12 months. A single athlete from six other countries also made the cut. Basketball landed six players among the top 14 athletes with tennis close behind with five, followed by one athlete each from soccer (Neymar), track (Usain Bolt) and golf (Rickie Fowler). Serena Williams ($28.9 million) is the only woman to make the cut.
A couple of Olympic regulars who rank among the world’s highest-paid athletes are sitting out Rio. LeBron James ($77.2 million) has played in the past three Olympics—winning two gold medals—but he decided to bypass Rio to rest after six straight years in the NBA Finals. Roger Federer ($67.8 million) was shooting to play in his fifth Olympics and add to his two medals (he also met his wife at the 2000 Games in Sydney), but announced last month that he would sit out the rest of the year to further rehab from knee surgery done at the beginning of the year.