WASHINGTON – Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has won Senate passage of legislation to provide a tax break for Olympians. It’s an election year for Schumer, looking for his fourth term, and it was panned by right-wing blogs as pandering.
But it’s a good idea, and it’s bipartisan, co-sponsored by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. Medalists, like swimmer Michael Phelps, take home $25,000 in cash for each gold medal they win, $15,000 for each silver and $10,000 for each bronze.
It’s all taxable as ordinary income. The bill needs House passage in the few weeks remaining in the year. Schumer-Thune would make the winnings tax-free. If it fails in the House, then the process will have to start fresh next year.
The chances of an Olympian becoming wealthy from the games themselves are slim to nonexistent, even though participants have all been professional athletes since 1986, and in some sports since the 1970s.
Other than athletes in hockey, basketball and a few other sports, some studies show many Olympians live close to the poverty line in training and afterward. They leave the games with little more than the parade uniform, sweat suit and performance gear they are given.
Even medalists go home to coaching, trainer and other low-paying jobs.
Rowing, happily for us, has been an exception. Because rowers need to have heft and maturity, most of them are plucked from the ranks of college crews. Afterward they go on to graduate school and the professions.
Most cyclists, gymnasts and swimmers start as teenagers. They often give high school short shrift and totally miss college, and wind up with short ladders in the climb toward a real job when the colors fade.
In the days before professionalism, crews had to raise their own money for travel and incidentals. In 1936, Michael J. Broderick, West Side Rowing Club president, mortgaged his house to pay for his club’s four-oared Olympic entry to travel to Berlin.
The 1956 West Side four (I was one of them) with coxswain had to raise money in a local bar, called The Place, for training gear. Bartender Joe Mooney pasted a huge roll of butcher paper around the wall.
Names of donors were posted. While the list was short, one wealthy industrialist bragged at the bar he would match whatever was raised. When the donations reached $1,500, the power broker stopped drinking there. He dispatched one of his managers to negotiate the gift down to $750.
A fine account of the economics of today’s games comes from Will Hobson of the Washington Post. Hobson writes of the huge unseen structure behind the curtains that includes “the International Olympic Committee members who travel first class and get paid thousands of dollars just to attend the Olympics … the executives who make hundreds of thousands to organize the Games … the international sports federations, the national federations and the [dozens] of national Olympic committees and all of their employees.”
These executives and their outfits are paid billions, Hobson said, by the networks that broadcast the games. In our case, we have the conglomerate Comcast-Universal-NBC. This year, the telecasts have sunk to a new level matched only by the behavior of our politicians.
Aside from the jarring commercial interruptions, the telecasts devoted too much time to vapid interviews, and next to no time for tradition and sportsmanship. The networks couldn’t be bothered with a live airing of the national anthem rite honoring the first African-American swimmer to take gold, Simone Manuel, in her tie with Canadian Penny Oleksiak, in the 100-meter freestyle.
For the managers, then, it’s about money. For the athletes, it’s about glory and good sports. So Schumer-Thune, which passed by voice vote, is a welcome gesture.