Its members call it, with an almost religious conviction, "the Olympic Movement," or "the Movement" for short, always capitalised.

At the very top of "the Movement" sits the International Olympic Committee, a non-profit organisation run by a "volunteer" president who gets an annual "allowance" of US$251,000 and lives rent-free in a five-star hotel and spa in Switzerland.

At the very bottom of "the Movement" - beneath the IOC members who travel first-class and get paid thousands of dollars just to attend the Olympics, beneath the executives who make hundreds of thousands to organise the Games, beneath the international and national sports federations and national Olympic committees and all their employees - are the athletes whose moments of triumph and pain will flicker on television screens around the globe.

When hundreds of millions of people watched yesterday's opening ceremony, they were taking part in the economic engine that powers the Olympic Movement. Broadcast and sponsorship deals for the Summer and Winter Games deliver billions to the IOC and its affiliates every year.


But by the time that flood of cash flows through the Movement and reaches the athletes, barely a trickle remains, often a few thousand dollars at most. For members of Team USA - many of whom live meagrely off the largesse of friends and family, charity and public assistance - the biggest tangible reward they'll receive for making it to Rio will be two suitcases full of free Nike and Ralph Lauren clothing they are required to wear at all team events.

In the words of its charter, the Olympic Movement is devoted "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society".

To an increasingly vocal group of current and former Olympic athletes, however, the Movement is a vast, global bureaucracy that treats athletes like replaceable cogs, restricting their income without fear of reprisal from a workforce unable, or unwilling, to unionise.

"The athletes are the very bottom of a trickle-down system, and there's just not much left for us," said Cyrus Hostetler, 29, a US javelin thrower and two-time Olympian who said the most he's ever made in one year in his career, after expenses, is about $3000. "They take care of themselves first, and us last."

UFC superstar Ronda Rousey (in blue) was living in her car months after winning an Olympic judo bronze medal in 2008. Photo / AP
UFC superstar Ronda Rousey (in blue) was living in her car months after winning an Olympic judo bronze medal in 2008. Photo / AP

The picture that emerges is a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry whose entertainers are often expected to raise their own income or live in poverty. Information collected last year from 150 US track and field athletes with top 10 national rankings found an average income of $16,553.

Before finding fame and fortune as a UFC fighter, Ronda Rousey won a bronze medal in judo in 2008 - and said she was living out of her car a few months later. Speed skater Emily Scott said she needed food stamps to get by as she trained for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.

While many athletes struggle to pay their rent or buy groceries, the billions the Rio Games will generate will flow into the pay cheques and extravagant perks enjoyed by IOC members and employees and volunteers with the hundreds of sports organisations that comprise "the Movement".

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus makes $854,000, and national swim team director Frank Busch makes $346,000; their swimmers competing in Rio can make monthly stipends that cap at $42,000 per year. USA Triathlon CEO Rob Urbach makes $362,000 while Team USA triathletes compete for stipends that range from about $20,000 to $40,000 a year. The coach of the USA Rowing women's team makes $237,000 while his rowers vie for stipends that max out at about $20,000 per year. (US Olympic athletes are given an additional stipend if they win a medal.)


"I've never thought it was fair," said rower Caroline Lind, a two-time gold medallist who recently retired after a back injury. "We're all replaceable. There's not really a concern for the individual athletes."

At the bottom of most IOC news releases, a note explains that the organisation sends more than 90 per cent of its income down into the Movement, an average of $3.25 million, every day, "to help athletes and sports organisations at all levels around the world".

An uncertain percentage of that money stays in Lausanne, though, or flows to organisations in other countries where non-profits enjoy legally protected financial secrecy.

Neither FINA (swimming) nor FIG (gymnastics) - two of the largest international federations, both based in Lausanne - publicly release financial information. The IAAF (track and field), headquartered in Monaco, also does not disclose financial details.

"Whenever athletes complain ... the IOC is famous for saying we give out 90 per cent of our yearly revenues to support the athletes," said Adam Nelson, an Olympic shot put thrower and gold medallist who has tried to unionise US athletes.

"While that may be true, they just pass a lot of it out to the federations. And there's not a lot of transparency or accountability about how that money gets spent, used and what makes it down to the athletes."

American Cyrus Hostetler says he's never earned more than $3000 a year during his time as an Olympic javelin thrower. Photo / AP
American Cyrus Hostetler says he's never earned more than $3000 a year during his time as an Olympic javelin thrower. Photo / AP

Despite enjoying the same legal entitlement to secrecy, the IOC publishes occasional financial reports that include some details, such as expected annual revenue ($1.375 billion) and payroll ($62 million). Last year, as part of a move towards more transparency, the IOC published details about the perks packages it provides president Thomas Bach and the 115 elected IOC members, all of whom are considered "volunteers".

For Bach, a former lawyer and Olympic fencer from Germany, the IOC provides an annual "allowance" of about 225,000 and pays for his suite at the Lausanne Palace & Spa, "an exceptional place of refinement" that offers "a superb view across Lake Geneva to the Alps," according to its website. It's unclear which type of suite Bach stays in, or whether the IOC gets a discount, but the Palace recently priced its cheapest suite at $1068 per night, or just shy of $390,000 for a year.

IOC members - a distinguished group that includes royalty (Prince Albert II of Monaco, Henri the Grand Duke of Luxembourg and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark) and successful business executives also enjoy generous perks. When on IOC business, members fly first-class, stay in luxury hotels, and also get cash per diems: $450 per day for regular IOC members, $900 per day for the IOC's executive committee.

These rates also apply to the Games themselves, which means in Rio, some IOC members will get paid more to watch the Olympics ($7650, depending on travel schedules) than many athletes will get paid to compete in the Olympics.

Bob Balk is a former Paralympic canoe athlete who attended the 2012 London Games as an IOC volunteer and also received per diem money. He recently recalled his amazement when he learned how much money he and other volunteers were getting to attend the Olympics.

Every morning, Balk said, a crowd of IOC members and volunteers gathered in a hotel room in London to collect their daily spending money.

"They had a $100-bill-counting machine, and people were standing in line to get their stacks of hundred-dollar bills," Balk said. "It was crazy."

The athletes are the very bottom of a trickle-down system, and there's just not much left for us.

Balk, like other IOC members and volunteers, had his flight and hotel bills covered, a car service to get around London, and free meals. When Balk got home, he still had $10,000 in per diem cash, he said, which he just deposited in the bank.

In major American sports leagues - such as the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA - management typically shares about 50 per cent of the revenue with the athletes. In promotional materials, the USOC advertises that more than 90 per cent of its spending goes to "areas that support US Olympic and Paralympic athletes". That same 2012 study by former athletes found that just 6 per cent of USOC spending goes to athletes as cash payments.

"I was pretty shocked and disappointed, but I knew how the system worked," said Ben Barger, an Olympic sailor who led the study. "The money goes to executives first, then administrators, then coaches, and then athletes."

While USOC employees' pay has grown over the years (the number of USOC employees making $100,000 or more has nearly doubled, rising from 66 to 121), the bonuses the USOC pay to Olympic medallists through a programme called Operation Gold have remained stagnant since 2002: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze.

USOC chief of sport performance Alan Ashley, who makes about $460,000, said he believes bonuses for medallists is "paying for past performance," and not likely to result in Team USA winning more medals. The over-riding mission of the USOC is winning the most medals possible.

When USOC CEO Scott Blackmun discussed how his organisation decides which sports and athletes deserve money, he used the phrase "podium potential". To athletes good enough to be the best in the US at sports dominated by other countries, though, the focus on podium potential can make them feel undesired in a community they've effectively taken a vow of poverty to join.

In 2014, a running website published an April Fool's spoof announcing that USA Track and Field had become a division of Nike.

There's an element of truth underlining the joke. USA Track and Field draws roughly half its overall revenue every year from its current deal with Nike (worth a reported $10 million annually), and the company's stake in USA Track and Field will increase next year when the new deal (worth a reported $20 million annually) starts.

Former Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson tried unsuccessfully to unionise United States athletes. Photo / AP
Former Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson tried unsuccessfully to unionise United States athletes. Photo / AP

Nike also sponsors the USOC, which means the corporate behemoth has a stranglehold on the two most-watched events in track and field: the US Olympic trials and the Olympics. Nike's competitors must accept the fact that, if they endorse runners, they'll be spending money on athletes who, at the US Olympic trials, will be televised running in a stadium lined with swooshes, and then at the Olympics will wear Nike jerseys as they run and, if they win medals, Nike tracksuits on the podium. Some runners have expressed concern that Nike's dominance is scaring away competition.

"Other brands aren't going to have exposure on the biggest stages, so why would they invest?" said Lauren Fleshman, a former Nike runner. "Even Nike athletes are going to be affected, because the marketplace is less competitive, so Nike won't have to pay as much."

At smaller US sport federations, athletes are less concerned with the sway held by sponsors, and more bothered by the power held by coaches and executives.

At US Rowing, women's head coach Tom Terhaar is the highest-paid employee, at $237,000. Men's coach Luke McGee makes $197,000. Their rowers compete for stipends from $500 to $1700 a month.

I've never thought it was fair. There's not really a concern for the individual athletes.

Caroline Lind won two gold medals for Terhaar, at the 2008 and 2012 Games. Her average annual income, Lind said, has been about $12,000, so she's relied on her parents for financial support.

In 2015, Lind had surgery on a herniated disc she developed after years of intense training. She asked Terhaar for a reduced schedule while she recovered. Terhaar refused, and when Lind started to feel twinges in her back as she returned to rowing, she decided to retire.

Terhaar said this was not true. He said he had approved a reduced training schedule, but wouldn't allow Lind an easier path to making Team USA. Lind was "not competitive or not healthy at the time of trials," he said.

After years of babysitting and doing other odd jobs so she could train, Lind - a 33-year-old Princeton graduate - is looking for a full-time job for the first time in years. Other rowers are upset over the massive pay gap between coaches and athletes, Lind said, but "the national team isn't really a place where athletes can have a voice".

"If Tom is making the ultimate decision on who's [on Team USA], you're not going to complain about his salary and your salary," Lind said. "People are afraid."

US Rowing CEO Glenn Merry said concerns about athlete pay "keep him up at night" but he defended the disparity between what he pays his coaches and his rowers as the best use of limited resources to try to win the most medals possible.

"Athlete support is super-important, but the quality of coaches, without that, there are no medals," Merry said. "What a coach does is not the same as an athlete. It's not apples to apples. An athlete is pursuing a dream." Washington Post