Can College Athletes Play in The Olympics?

Playing in the Olympic Games is one of the biggest dreams for athletes in every sport. We have all wondered how it would feel – representing our countries, competing against the best athletes in the world, everything while you’re being streamed to televisions across the world? Well, that dream came to my mind while I watched the Olympics from my dorm room. Then I realized there were probably at least 150 better players ahead of me in line to represent our beloved country. But that got me thinking, with all the strict NCAA regulations, would a college-athlete be able to play in the Olympic Games – while still in school?

It turns out the answer is yes. The NCAA says that:

A student-athlete may participate in the official Olympic Games, in final tryouts that directly qualify competitors for the Olympic Games, and in officially recognized competition directly qualifying participants for final Olympic Games tryouts.

So it looks like going to college will not shatter your dreams of playing in the Olympics. Well, that’s if you’re in that 0.04% that is actually good enough to make it while still in college. Now there are some other things about it that I found pretty interesting:

So They Can Compete, But Can They Get Paid?

So apparently not only college athletes can play in the Olympics, but the can also get a big fat check for doing so. First of all, the athlete won’t have to pay for their actual and necessary expenses (that means you better keep your receipts) during the games – they can be paid for by their schools, their conferences, the NCAA, or by their country’s Olympic Committee.

Second, the athletes can actually have academic expenses – a.k.a. scholarship –  paid for by the Olympic Committee (in case they decide that you’ve earned it). Third, they can receive any nonmonetary benefits and awards provided to an Olympic team (provided that that award is available to everyone in their team).

Lastly and most importantly, athletes can actually get paid to play! The NCAA establishes that

“An individual (prospective student-athlete or student-athlete) may accept funds that are administered by the U.S. Olympic Committee pursuant to its Operation Gold program.”

Operation Gold is an incentive program created by the U.S. Olympic Committee that awards athletes U$37,500 for gold medals, U$22,500 for silver medals, and U$15,000 for bronze medals (2016 compensation levels per medal).

International student-athletes might have it even better. According to the NCAA,

An international prospective student-athlete or international student-athlete may accept funds from his or her country’s national Olympic governing body (equivalent to the U.S. Olympic Committee) based on place finish in one event per year that is designated as the highest level of international competition for the year by the governing body.

In 2016, this allowed for Joseph Schooling (who was a freshman at the University of Texas) to receive an amount of U$753,000 for being the first Singaporean ever to receive a gold medal. He was actually able to maintain his eligibility. Actually.

History of College Athletes in the Olympics

College athletes have been representing their countries really well in the past Olympics. In 2018, 18 student-athletes made it to PyeongChang’s Winter Olympics while still in college. In Rio 2016, that number was 168. In addition, there were another 850 future or past college athletes in Rio and 143 in PyeongChang.

According to USA TODAY, besides Joseph Schooling, other college athletes that were able to keep some nice paychecks in Rio were:

  • Katie Ledecky (Stanford University): $355,000
  • Ryan Murphy (University of California, Berkeley): $234,375
  • Simone Manuel (Stanford University): ~$200,000
  • Lilly King (Indiana University Bloomington): $134,375

Additional International Competitions

The awesome news is that these rules don’t apply for the Olympic Games only. You can also get these benefits at the  World University Games (Universiade), World University Championships, Pan American Games, World Championships and the World Cup. While qualifying for those events is still pretty much just as hard and the compensation is probably smaller, they are other opportunities where athletes can represent their countries and still make some money doing so.

While I did my best to research the information well, I would probably suggest that you take a look at the NCAA rules before you commit to going to the Olympics. Oh well, I guess if you’re that good you’ll have a whole compliance team working all around you.

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