One of the most common questions I’ve been asked throughout my career is,“can you make a living from being an elite athlete?”
Unfortunately, the answer for most is, “no”!
People often look at our NRL stars or top tennis champs, and the impression is that life as a professional sportsperson is pretty lucrative – high base wages, big prizes, and even bigger endorsements. However, the Australian Sports Foundation (ASF) has just released a report that lays out some uncomfortable truths.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Australian Athletes report looks at the state of our athletes’ economic, physical and mental health. It’s important to note that most of the survey respondents came from outside the major professional codes (the likes of AFL, soccer, cricket).
“The results of our survey show that while COVID-19 has worsened the financial situation of Australian athletes, it also lays bare a profound impact on physical and mental health, and in many cases on our athletes’ overall career aspirations. It has implications for our ability to be competitive internationally, which is of particular concern given the likelihood of Australia hosting the 2032 Olympics.”
In recent years there has been a push for better support for our athletes, however the reality is that most ‘professional athletes’ are not even close to earning what would be considered a minimum wage. Over 75% of survey respondents specified that they compete at a national or international level, yet around 50% of these same athletes reported earning less than $23,000 from all sources, including their sport and external paid work. This is well below the $39,000 national minimum wage in Australia.
The findings certainly ring true for me: beach volleyball is a bigger business in the U.S. and Brazil, and many players can earn a decent living, as well as having access to some of the best coaches – on and off the court – and strength and conditioning experts. To make a career in my home country, I had to rely on the generous support of family and friends, along with a lot of fundraising! I hustled hard at every turn, piecing together the funds I needed from many sources. I’ve sold raffle tickets, washed cars, even had a Yatala Pie drive… you name it, I’ve done it!
The ASF survey also found that athletes struggle to balance the demands of their sporting career with other paid work. The financial and mental strain it puts on them can often have adverse effects on what they can achieve in their sport. Most said they rely on family, but for many aspiring athletes, that’s not viable. This means that many talented athletes are forced to withdraw from their sport, widening the gap when we should be striving for more diversity and inclusion.
The disparities continue when we consider that many athletes do not earn superannuation from their sport, and they don’t get to enjoy benefits such as paid sick leave or annual leave that many other Aussie workers rely on.
Our athletes’ physical and mental health has sadly taken a dive during the pandemic, too. 73% of respondents said the pandemic had a negative impact on their physical health, and those numbers were even higher for our Paralympians, with over 80% reporting a decline in physical health. 86% of all respondents reported that their mental health had deteriorated.
The bottom line is that Olympic and Paralympic athletes need to spend more time in training and recovery, and less time worrying about where their next dollar is coming from. We must keep pushing for our much-loved athletes to have some level of financial security so that they can focus on their sport and reach their potential.
I’m hopeful that with a 2032 Brisbane Olympics on the horizon (fingers crossed!), there will be a renewed focus to support our athletes in a way that is proportionate to what they deliver to society. They really are the pride of our nation; that was made clear during COVID when we turned to our nation’s sporting teams to lift our spirits and give us a much-needed break from the bad news cycle, as well as inspiring us to move our bodies and keep physically active, which in turn promotes both physical and mental health.
We need to better equip our heroes so that they can focus on preparing for their best athletic performance.
ASF raises much-needed funds for Australian athletes – you can read the full report and find out more about their work at sportsfoundation.org.au, and if you can, please consider making a donation to ensure the continuation of Australia’s sporting legacies.
I spoke with ABC Radio about the financial issues our athletes are facing, and the interview is available here if you would like to listen.
Image by Braden Collum
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