One of the biggest changes that have taken place in the history of the Olympic games happened in 1988 when professional athletes were finally allowed to participate in the competitions subject to the approval of their respective international sports federations. As a result, some of the biggest earners in all of sports started to show up at the games to try to add an Olympic gold medal to their list of achievements. With Sochi right around the corner, NHL fans are gearing up to cheer on their home teams and some of their favourite players in what promised to be an exciting competition.
But perhaps the best example of this reform in action was how beginning in 1992, the United States has been able to send a "Dream Team" composed of active NBA players to the Olympics. This allowed the country to win five of the six gold medals since then and changed the financial profile of the Olympic games forever. Superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird playing together on one team for the glory of their country is definitely a sight that most basketball fans will never forget.
In order to come up with a varied list of today's highest-paid athletes to have won a gold medal, only one athlete per event is featured, female events being considered unique from their male counterparts' events. Otherwise, the list would have been dominated by today's NBA superstars.
With this consideration in mind, here are 7 of today's highest-paid athletes who have won an Olympic gold medal, their earnings collected between June 2012 and June 2013.
7 Serena Williams - United States - Tennis / $20.5 Million
After participating in three Olympics, Serena Williams has collected four gold medals - three in women's doubles, all with sister Venus (2000, 2008, 2012) and one in the women's singles event (2012). As a result, Serena and Venus are the only female tennis players to have ever won four gold medals in the Olympics (Venus also won a gold medal in singles at the 2000 games in Syndey, Australia).
In fact, Serena's victory in the singles event of the 2012 Summer Games made her only the second player after Steffi Graf to have won all four grand slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal in the same year. Add to that $54 million in career prize money so far, and you've got the credentials of one of the most accomplished sportswomen of all time. Her endorsement money this year has greatly exceeded her $8.5 million tennis winnings, bringing her earnings up to $20.5 million.
6 Wladimir Klitschko - Ukraine - Boxing / $24 Million
Most sports fans know 37-year-old Wladimir Klitchko as the younger brother of WBC Heavyweight Champion Vitali and as the current WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, IBO and The Ring Heavyweight Champion. They also recognize him as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters today. Because of those awesome achievements, it is not often mentioned that the younger of the Klitschko boxers also has to his credit an Olympic gold medal, which he won as an amateur super heavyweight during the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.
It's not surprising that aside from the $19 million that Wladimir made in prize money from June 2012 to June 2013, he also earned $5 million in endorsements, bringing his net worth today to over $30 million.
5 Usain Bolt – Jamaica - Track / $24.2 Million
Usain Bolt has six Olympic medals (all of them gold), which he earned in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. He did so by winning the 100-m and 200-m race, and the 4x100-m relay in both Summer Games, making him the first man to win six Olympic gold medals in sprinting. He also has eight other gold medals from the World Championships and is widely regarded as the faster person ever.
For such a dominant athlete, Bolt has actually made relatively little in prize money, earning only $200,000 from June 2012 to June 2013. However, the $24 million in endorsements, appearance fees and sponsor bonuses that the 24-year-old collected in that period more than make up for it.
4 Rafael Nadal – Spain - Tennis Singles / $26.4 Million
In the 2008 Summer Games, Rafael Nadal won the gold medal match, making him the first top 5 tennis player to win Olympic gold. Then, in 2010, Nadal chalked up his first US Open championship, adding to his 2009 Australian Open, five French Opens and 2008 Wimbledon titles to make him the first man since Andre Agassi to win all four grand slam titles and an Olympic gold medal: the career golden grand slam.
Currently #1 in the world after a stellar 2013, Rafa has now collected an incredible 13 grand slam singles titles, putting him third behind only Pete Sampras (14) and Roger Federer (17) for most all time.
It's also worth noting that Nadal holds the record for the most tennis prize money earned in a single season after he made $14,570,935 in 2013, thereby upping his career total to $64,632,763. Combined with his various endorsement deals, the Spaniard brought home over $26 million in the span of a year.
3 Lionel Messi – Argentina - Football / $41.3 Million
During the 2008 Summer Olympics in Argentina, Lionel Messi's club at the time, La Liga's FC Barcelona, actually banned him from playing for Argentina in the games. However, Leo so badly wanted to play for his country that he held talks with newly appointed coach Pep Guardiola to allow him to join his national football squad.
Messi was eventually allowed to participate and Argentina made full use of their prized weapon with the superstar forward scoring the first goal in the team's first two matches. In the gold medal match, Messi would assist teammate Angel Di Maria for the only goal in the 1-0 victory over Nigeria.
Today, Messi holds the record for the most goals scored in all competitions and has won the FIFA Player of the Year award for a record fourth year in a row. It is thus not very surprising that Barcelona has extended Leo's contract until 2018, guaranteeing Messi more than $20 million per year.
2 Kobe Bryant – United States - Basketball / $61.9 Million
Kobe Bryant failed to participate in the 2000 Olympics due to his marriage in the off-season and the 2004 Olympics because of a pending legal case. However, Kobe still struck gold the two times that he did represent Team USA.
At the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, the Black Mamba scored 13 points in the fourth quarter to lead Team USA to victory in the gold medal match against Spain. All throughout the tournament, he averaged 15 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Then, in the 2012 Games in England, Kobe again suited up for his country and scored 17 points in the final to once more taste Olympic gold.
At 35 years of age and having recently recovered from a torn Achilles tendon, just how much does Bryant have left in the tank? Well, a lot, the Lakers management seems to think. In November, 2013 they signed him to a two-year contract extension worth $48.5 million.
1 Roger Federer – Switzerland - Tennis Doubles / $71.5 Million
Those who refuse to accept that Roger Federer is the best tennis player of his era often point to the fact that he hasn't won an Olympic gold medal. But that argument's not entirely true as Roger has tasted Olympic gold -- in men's doubles, that is.
At the 2008 Summer Games, R-Fed partnered with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka to top the men's doubles event after losing in the second round of singles. Four years later, in the 2012 Olympics, Federer would find himself within reach of the singles gold medal that he so badly wanted to add to his long list of achievements, but he fell short, losing in straight sets to Andy Murray on the Briton's home turf.
But with an all-time record 17 grand slam titles and $79,218,415 in prize money so far, it's hard to argue against Federer being considered the greatest tennis player of all time just because he hasn't won an Olympic gold medal in singles. And besides, there's still the 2016 Games in Rio, where (if he continues playing till then) Roger just might finally grab that elusive tennis singles gold medal.
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