How Olympians Can Leverage Their Gold

The lucrative limelight can also lead to unique financial challenges.

U.S. Olympic speed skater Brian Hansen

Brian Hansen of the United States competes during the Men's 1000m Speed Skating event during day 5 of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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Olympic medals are worth more than just glory - they can lead to lucrative sponsorships, speaking engagements and business opportunities. But Olympians can also struggle with unique financial challenges, including years of earning little money while paying for pricey training and being forced into retirement after a brief career in the spotlight.

"It's easy to get accustomed to a certain lifestyle," says financial advisor Eric Flaim, who is also a four-time Olympian for speedskating and winner of two silver medals. He encourages his clients, many of whom are elite athletes, to focus on saving and living more frugally than they might otherwise.

"Realistically, you could be one injury away from ending your career. You need to save significantly more than an individual whose job will take them to age 65," Flaim says. He adds that training costs, including coaching, living expenses, travel and practice facilities can easily exceed $100,000 a year.

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Meanwhile, earning potential varies greatly by sport and by athlete. While winning gold can help athletes stand out, Flaim says, other aspects of their story are also crucial to securing paying gigs post-Olympics. "People love somebody that they would want to emulate, who seems like an all-around quality human being, rather than just [a winner]," he says.

Not all Olympians, though, return home to offers of well-paid sponsorships. Olympian Sugar Ray Leonard told the Hollywood Reporter that when he came home after the 1976 Montreal Games after winning gold, he was disappointed. Sponsors, he says, didn't want to feature an African-American boxer on their products, so he had to turn to the professional boxing circuit to earn a living. Diver Greg Louganis, an Olympic gold medalist, says he also had trouble finding corporate sponsors, which he attributes to his sexuality. Meanwhile, some stars opt to forgo sponsorship deals to maintain their eligibility for collegiate competition.

Earning potential varies by sport, as well, with the lesser-known and team sports generally garnering less attention. Even track and field athletes can struggle: A 2012 survey from the USA Track & Field Foundation found that about half of elite track and field athletes earn less than $15,000 each year through their sport. Earnings, the survey found, depend on the ability to win medals and races as well as charisma, beauty and fan appeal.

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The good news is that Olympians appear to be better prepared to manage their money than the average American. A 2012 survey of past and present Olympians by TD Ameritrade, an official Team USA sponsor, found that Olympians are more confident with their money, more likely to have a regular savings habit and more likely to save or invest any windfalls received than other Americans. More than two-thirds of Olympians surveyed said they save for the future, and most described themselves as financially stable.

TD Ameritrade managing director Carrie Braxdale says she thinks Olympians' experience with goal-setting and working toward those goals can help them develop a plan for their finances. "They're sophisticated when it comes to goal-setting and what actions are needed," she says, adding that they're also accustomed to making sacrifices, another useful attribute in both athletic competition and financial planning.

Flaim agrees: "When you're an athlete at that level, you understand the power of planning for the long term. You're not just thinking about today or tomorrow." In fact, he says it was his experience as an Olympian, working so hard for a big goal and then finally reaching it, that inspired him to go into financial planning.

"I thought it would be immensely satisfying to help [clients] identify their big goals, whether it's selling a business, building retirement income or buying a vacation home, and then working with them to achieve them," he says. Flaim, now in his mid-40s, is a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial Services in Portsmouth, N.H.

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For Olympians coming out of the Sochi Games with bigger profiles and new earning opportunities, Braxdale recommends rethinking financial goals. Successful Olympians might decide they want to retire early, for example, or make different investments. "Develop a real financial plan, and make sure the money is going to work for you in the long haul," she says.

Flaim also encourages today's Olympians to plan for the future. "The opportunity you have won't last forever," he warns. After his own Olympic career ended, Flaim did a number of speaking engagements and public appearances and worked for NBC covering the 2002 Olympic Games. After about four years, he launched his career as a financial advisor.

Charity can also weigh heavily on athletes' minds. In the TD Ameritrade survey, many Olympians cited the importance of philanthropy. Flaim founded the Flaim Foundation after the 1994 Olympic Games, with the goal of enriching the lives of underprivileged children through sports and recreation. "I wanted to do something positive and give back," Flaim says.

That kind of legacy can last well beyond the all-too-brief Olympic Games.