What Do Olympians Do After The Olympics? Their Career Paths Are As Diverse As They Are
All the focus is on the current athletes competing for gold as the Winter 2018 Olympics and Paralympics in PyeongChang come closer — but what happens to Olympians once their Olympic careers are over? Physical careers are, by definition, limited; once the body gives out, is damaged or can no longer replicate its highest performance, competitors have to retire and figure out what else to do with their lives. Olympians end their sporting careers far before most people stop working; so what do they do with themselves?
Being an ex-Olympian in the real world is harder than it seems. A study in 2012 found that many athletes who've competed at elite levels and Olympics struggle after their careers in sports end, particularly in terms of mental health. After excelling in an arena that often involves single-minded focus and devotion since childhood, they can encounter difficulties with less rigid routines, less tangible markers of success, and adjusting their skill-set to a world that isn't centered around athletic accomplishments. The varied ways in which they find new directions show vividly that even the most highly physically skilled humans can find the adult world very hard indeed. Here are six different career paths Olympians have gone down after they no longer participate in the Games.
1. They Train Their Own Olympians
For many elite athletes, the road after the Olympics continues to be in the sporting world; it's relatively common for athletes to go into coaching, training, or behind-the-scenes roles in their particular sport. Michael Johnson, the multi-gold winning Olympian who held the 200m world sprinting record until it was broken by Usain Bolt, has training academies for sprinters, while Derek Bouchard-Hall, who represented the U.S. in cycling, became the head of the USA Cycling team in 2015. However, just because an athlete has had an elite career doesn't automatically mean they're cut out to teach others, so this isn't an automatic career move for many Olympians.
2. Write Books
Celebrity athlete biographies and memoirs are hugely popular, particularly among Olympians, since their stories are often so inspirational. Gymnast Aly Raisman's autobiography Fierce is just one example of a flourishing genre. Some athletes, however, opt to go beyond the mould of talking about their own experience into other areas entirely. The skating Olympic legend Kristi Yamaguchi, for instance, has a range of highly successful children's picture books about a figure-skating pig.
3. Become Commentators & Motivational Speakers
Many former Olympians make money on the motivational speaking circuit, giving talks and corporate seminars on motivation, perseverance, goal-setting and other psychological aspects that are necessary to success as an elite athlete. As corporate sponsorship deals after Games tend to be restricted only to athletes who did exceptionally well or captured the public eye, this is one of the biggest ways for all Olympians to make an earner from their experience. Speaking firms will often have multi-medalling athletes, retired and otherwise, on their books; often the fees for hiring aren't advertised, but the fee for a star like Usain Bolt can reach $1,000,000 for a talk. Verbose Olympians are often also given commentating spots on their expert sports in later Olympics. Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, both Olympians in figure skating, now make up one of the most-loved commentating pairs in sport.
4. Join The Military
The popularity of this particular direction shouldn't be a surprise: Military life thrives on discipline, rigid boundaries, obedience, structured routines, hierarchy, and physical fitness, all of which are present in the lives of professional athletes. Some athletes maintain their military and athletic careers simultaneously. Willie Davenport, who won gold in the 110m hurdles at the Mexico City Games in 1968, rose from private to colonel in the U.S. Army National Guard after he stopped competing. Others signed up after their own athletic careers finished. Conn Smythe, the Canadian hockey player who founded the Toronto Maple Leafs, played hockey before and after fighting in World War I, and then re-enlisted for WWII at the age of 45. The U.S. team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio also had several Olympic competitors with current or former military careers, competing in everything from shooting events to pentathlon.
5. Help Out Other Olympians In Need
It may seem odd to us mere mortals, but the Olympics does not create financial opportunity; instead, for many ex-Olympians, the specter of economic hardship looms large. The need for assistance and direction is so great that former Olympic judo competitor Jimmy Pedro founded a job company to help Olympians find job opportunities once their careers as professional athletes funded by national sporting associations (or partially self-funded) are over. Janet Evans, who carried the torch to Muhammad Ali at the 1996 games, told the Hollywood Reporter in 2012, "The majority of Olympians have hardships — it was a pretty significant percentage that are under the poverty line. They spend seven to 10 years training and lose that valuable time in the corporate world, getting barely any kind of money from sponsorships or the Olympic Committee. And it's a very rare few that make a significant fortune based on the Olympics. We all think, 'Oh, you win a gold medal and you're going to be set for life.' And that is just not true."
Olympians who came into their sports early in life may have no other marketable skills, and even athletes who are older can go into debt training and competing in worldwide unpaid competitions. Many work day jobs to be able to fund their high-end training, even after dominating the competition. Visa launched a program in Rio in 2016 designed to help athletes control their finances, as many encounter poverty and the threat of bankruptcy during and after competition.
6. Go Into Entirely Unrelated Careers
There are thousands of ex-Olympians all over the world, and many of them go into careers entirely separate from the sporting world once their Olympic period of competition ends. The American Olympian Mark Spitz is an example; famously trained in dentistry, he now has a career in real estate, stockbroking and investment, after becoming one of the most successful Olympic swimmers of all time over multiple Olympics. Other highly successful people who've done an abrupt shift into the working world include Emily Hughes, the former U.S. Olympic figure skater who now works at Google, and rowing silver medalist Caryn Davies, who is now a lawyer. The history of Olympic athletes going into other fields after retiring is a long one, even for household names; the long-distance record-breaker Paavo Nurmi opened a haberdashery in Helsinki, and Olympic sprinting legend Jesse Owens struggled so much after retirement in the 1930s and 1940s, that he became a gas station attendant.
The lives of Olympians once the spotlight has gone away and their bodies decide it's time to retire can be harder than you might think. Just being a champion on the podium doesn't mean that adult life, with responsibilities and financial pressures, comes any easier.