Olympic Athletes Should be Paid!

June 7, 2019

I love the Toronto Raptors. Always have. They have been my team since their inception in 1995. Like all the other diehard Raptors fans, I am thrilled that our team has made it to the NBA finals. 

Over the years, the Raptors have been an amazing influence on basketball in Canada, both in terms of participation and developing elite talent (there are now more Canadians in the NBA than any other nationality aside from the US). The so-called “Vince Carter effect” has transformed Canada into a sports-crazed country that looks beyond hockey. 

As someone who works predominately in the area of Olympic sport, it’s interesting to examine the similarities and differences between the NBA and Olympic sport. 

I was in Vancouver working for the Olympics in 2010. I saw first hand how our country rallied around those Games and our Canadian athletes. It was an amazing experience. From my perspective, these NBA finals in Toronto, while on a smaller scale, are having the same sort of effect on sport in our country and on our national pride as the Vancouver Games did. 

Contrary to what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) seems to espouse, I don’t think the Olympic Games are about “amateur” sport any longer and that leagues like the NBA are about “professional” sport. This distinction no longer exists. Both are similar in the sense they are profit-generating professional sport enterprises with broadcasting agreements, mega corporate partnership deals, and supreme elite athletic stars. 

Those are some of the similarities, but are there differences between their operations as well?  Sadly, yes. The NBA’s business model rightly incorporates compensating its players in a fair manner, while the IOC’s business model seems to continue to perpetuate this myth of amateurism, while choosing not to pay its athletes directly. 

NBA players collectively bargain; the league allocates approximately 50 per cent of gross revenues to salaries and players can profit from endorsement deals that, in some cases, surpass the value of their annual salaries. Some might argue that NBA players are grossly overpaid, but that misses the point: simply put, players receive compensation commensurate with the value of the league and the value they bring to the league in a fair and negotiated manner. 

In contrast, Olympic athletes do not seem to collectively bargain. It is not clear what, if any, percentage of revenues earned from the Olympic Games go to the participating athletes and there are serious restrictions in place that prevent Olympic athletes from directly associating with and seeking endorsement from the Olympic brand. It seems Olympic athletes are not getting a fair deal based on what they bring to the show. 

I am not suggesting that the NBA is perfect. I appreciate the issues with professional major league sport in North America, particularly when it comes to lack of effective anti-doping measures and concerns with athlete safety in the NHL and NFL. But the fact that they engage in collective bargaining, and pay athletes their fair share of league earnings, is something we should also expect from the IOC. 

Olympic athletes are just as deserving of fair compensation as NBA players are. It’s time for Olympic athletes to demand this compensation!

-- Jeremy Luke, Senior Director, Sport Integrity, Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport