If past statistical trends continue, the gross majority of the estimated 11,091 athletes expected to gather in Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games this summer will be experiencing their only shot at Olympic glory.
That’s a harsh reality given the commitment needed to make it to what is still arguably the greatest sports competition in the world. But the numbers do not lie.
From 1896, when the Olympic Games were revived, until 2018, statistician Bill Mallon has calculated that of the 136,356 athletes known to have competed in either the summer or winter games, 72% (97,718) attended just a single Olympics. Of course, this dynamic varies from sport to sport; although competitors in sports like table tennis have a 50-50 chance of attending more than once, 80% to 90% of the athletes in boxing, soccer and gymnastics have only a single shot at Olympic glory.
The consequences of the “one-and-done” experience for most Olympic athletes can be severe, both financially and psychologically.
In many countries, qualifying for an Olympics can be directly connected to funding for training and living expenses. In other words, if you’re not at least competing to get to the Olympics, you may not get much financial support. And that will cut deeply into the length of your career as an elite athlete.
So, what awaits these magnificent athletes in a post-Olympic world? Despite the knowledge that Olympic careers are perilously short, the global sports industry is still struggling to provide comprehensive transition support for athletes in all sports.
Very few athletes in either professional or top-level amateur sport earn enough money to set them up for the remainder of their post sporting lives. That requires sports organizations – governing bodies, national committees, leagues, and individual clubs – to look at formal transition support to help athletes find a career after sports.
“It’s fair to say that athletes like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps are really an exception when it comes to Olympic competition,” said Chantal Buchser, the International Olympic Committee’s senior project manager for athlete support. “Careers can be short, and incomes related to this sport can be quite low. And it is not equivalent given the years of dedication and commitment our athletes have given to their sports. That’s why our program is so needed; to help athletes find professional opportunities after sports.”
The IOC has certainly been a pioneer in the area of post-competition transition support. For the past 16 years, the IOC worked closely with The Adecco Group, one of the world’s largest providers of career transition support, to help more than 50,000 athletes plan for a post-competition career.
Currently, the IOC offers Athlete365 Career+, a comprehensive transition program that includes support and resources to maximize education and employment opportunities to ensure that athletes have the best chances of a sustainable and rewarding career after sport.
Buchser said it’s very important to encourage athletes to focus some of their attention on post-competition planning while they are still active in their sports. Most elite athletes understand that their sports careers are vulnerable to disruption from things like injury, and need to spend at least some time preparing for a life after sports, she added.
The problem is that, as Buchser has found out first-hand, it can be very difficult to talk about future career plans with athletes while they are deep into training, or in the immediate aftermath of a big competition like the Olympics when they are likely suffering from severe psychological stress.
Research on athletes following big events, or those who are facing the end of their competitive careers, has shown that many face various degrees of psychological crisis. Some studies have found that retiring from elite sports impacts the athletes’ “social and physical worlds, with changes in roles, relationships and daily routines.” Elite female gymnasts, for example, described the sensation of leaving competition as being “stuck between two worlds.”
This can also be a problem for professional athletes, whose competitive careers are often even shorter than top-level amateur athletes.
Current data shows the average career length in the Big Four professional leagues in North America ranges from just over five years for the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, to just under five years for the National Basketball Association and only three years in the National Football League. The same holds true for the top levels of competitive soccer; in the English Premier League, for example, the average career is just eight years.
Short careers and often limited earning potential make post-competition career planning essential for all athletes, although finding the time to broach the subject can be challenging.
“I’ve been at Olympic games and tried to talk to athletes about what they are going to do with their lives afterwards,” Buchser said. “It’s not really the right time. Athletes may experience a post-games depression. They put in so much time and energy focused on this one event and when it’s over, there can be a real letdown. And this is why it is so important to get the message out to these people that they can do more with their lives in addition to being an athlete.”
Progress is being made at the country level, Buchser said. Olympic committees in countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, Norway, Switzerland – among others – have stepped up to help their athletes prepare for life beyond sport while they are still in the heat of competition, Buchser said.
Still, Buscher said that many within the Olympic movement acknowledge that more needs to be done. Recently, IOC President Thomas Bach acknowledged that programs like Athlete365+ are essential in helping athletes acquire the training and job opportunities to achieve “lifelong excellence on and off the field of play.”