It is expensive to win a gold medal. Thousands of dollars per month on food. Frequent travel. Top-of-the-range equipment. And sacrificing a steady job.
But for Kaarle McCulloch, the Australian track cyclist who won two gold medals, one silver and one bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, it is all part of the package of being an amateur athlete.
“I’m spending $250 a week just on food,” she told The New Daily.
“That adds up. Then you have massage, sports psychology, bike equipment – all that stuff that I don’t think a lot of people realise that goes into elite level sport.”
While players in Australia’s dominant codes – rugby league, rugby union and AFL – can earn six-figure salaries, many athletes competing at the Games are fortunate to scrape enough together just to cover their living expenses.
So what are the costs of being a self-funded athlete?
Sponsorships and funding
The Australian Sports Commission offers grants to athletes who achieve podium-level results or show enough potential as a young competitor to reach the elite level.
Cycling is one of the better-funded sports.
“It’s enough to live, but not enough to earn a living,” McCulloch said.
Her funding from Cycling Australia covers rent, food, petrol and all travel trips.
The governing body also provides her equipment.
Bikes can be up to $10,000 each, and then there are accessories like shoes, helmets, clothing and extra wheels.
Interest from sponsors is limited because there’s little coverage of the sport.
That means fewer eyeballs watching our top cyclists, limited media coverage and fewer organisations wanting to be involved.
Out of sight, out of mind
“The opportunities to secure a big corporation supporting us is quite difficult,” McCulloch said.
“We’re a bit of a niche sport. We really only get televised every two years for the Commonwealth Games and Olympics.
“It is quite difficult to get out there and go, ‘Hey everybody, I’m an elite-level athlete. I train as hard as the AFL player that gets paid $300,000 a year’.”
For younger athletes wanting to reach the elite level, it can often be difficult just to get to training camps.
Gymnast Alex Eade had to fork out travel costs to get to Canberra last month, where the Commonwealth Games trials were being held.
The 20-year-old wasn’t part of the national squad at that stage – they get funded for travel – so she turned to her family and support group to get her through.
“My gym had to try and come up with the money to get to Canberra,” she told The New Daily.
She still isn’t sure exactly how they did it, but their efforts made her performances this week worth it.
Eade won a gold medal on Monday in the floor event.
But as far as a career in her sport, she doesn’t think she can make a living out of it, and is studying biomedical science at university.
“We don’t really get many sponsorships just because gymnastics is not the biggest sport in the world, especially in Australia,” she said.
“There’s not much money in athletics. You finish your career quite young – when you’re 25 at the oldest.”
Therefore, gymnasts only have a few large-scale events like the Commonwealth Games to showcase their skills and get maximum exposure.
For Eade and her sporting colleagues, it’s definitely about the love of the sport rather than any financial gain.
Elena Galiabovitch is on her way to becoming a urologist, but is also juggling a career as a top-class shooter.
The 28-year-old surgical registrar won bronze – Australia’s first shooting medal at the Games – and followed it up with a silver medal.
But Galiabovitch has missed out on roles at work because she’s had to take time off to compete in shooting events.
For a chance to perform at the Games, she ended up taking a rotation off – two months of work – and put everything on hold for a crack at a medal.
“We had a lot of trips, competitions and training in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games,” she told The New Daily.
“It’s nice to have that time, but of course it is leave without pay. While I’m doing it, I don’t have an income. On top of that, time away from the workforce. In medicine, every rotation counts.”
Next month, Galiabovitch travels to Korea for the world championships. That means more time off work and more sacrifice.
It’s a juggling act between sport and earning money.
“With shooting, I have to bear in mind I may have to make compromises in my career, and it’s a really difficult balance,” she said.
“I have to work to be able to shoot, but the career is the livelihood.”
Is it worth it?
When an athlete finally wins a medal, all the sacrifices and hardships seem to melt away for a moment.
Eade neatly summed up why the lure of a podium finish is so intoxicating for any athlete – and why they continue to sacrifice a normal livelihood to pursue that feeling.
“I was crying even before I knew I won the gold,” she said.
“I was crying when I knew that I just got a medal. I was overcome with so many emotions (because) I knew how much hard work I had put in.”