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Why do professional athletes compete in the Olympic Games?

“It’s not the winning, but the taking part that counts” is a famous quote associated with the modern Olympics Movement and its founder Pierre de Coubertin. The belief behind it, that the Olympics should be the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, meant that for large parts of the history of the Olympics, the participants were strictly amateur, training and competing purely for the glory. However, over time these entry requirements were removed for most sports meaning that, although professional athletes were able to compete in the Olympics, they were unable to claim prize money. However, famous names such as Neymar, LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Justin Rose are all recent Olympic gold medallists. Why did they choose to “take part” if there was no money in it?

Our research here at IRIS shows that there are both tangible and intangible benefits for a professional athlete to compete in an Olympiad. The tangible benefits we found focus on the increase in the “Celebrity Value” that an athlete gains after Olympic participation, which in turn can lead to an increase in their appeal to sponsors. The Celebrity Value of an athlete increases for several reasons. For instance, the Olympics is one of the biggest events on the planet, and events are therefore viewed by fans not just of one particular sport, but by fans of other sports and even plenty of viewers who would normally consider themselves to be sports fans. This therefore enables athletes to enjoy massive increases in their awareness and public image, which can be calculated by comparing the social media following of an athlete before, during and after an Olympics. Our results show that these increases in followership can often be permanent, but even if they last only 6 months, the benefit to sponsorship values can be significant.

Another tangible benefit to Olympic participation is the increase to the value of the perception of the athlete. This enables athletes to bask in the reflected glory of the Olympics and the Olympic movement, and are therefore more appealing to advertisers looking for values such as internationality, sympathy, coolness, fascination and modernity.

As well as these benefits to the “brand” of athletes, there are intangible benefits for them to participate that arguably cannot be replicated elsewhere. One such benefit is the “National Team Experience”, whereby athletes can form part of a team with the elite talent from their country across a range of different sports. In our study, this experience was rated by athletes to be (at the very least) slightly positive or positive – and in most cases, very positive, as it provided them with a “very different and previously unavailable source of motivation and enthusiasm”. As well as being part of a team, the national pride resulting from competing in an Olympics is also a benefit for athletes. This is one of the main media narratives surrounding a particular Olympic Games, and athletes are able to be part of this, and to benefit further from the viewers outside their sport, who are watching because it is their country. The Olympics are shown on free-TV around the world, far more often than sports might be individually, so this represents further opportunity for both the visibility, and the awareness from the public. There is therefore a real chance for an athlete to achieve “national hero” or “legend” status here, outside of the community of their sport.

For more insights on our Olympic research here at IRIS (research that we hope to continue and expand upon in Tokyo over the coming months!) please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

About the author

IRIS International Sales Manager Stuart Levy, pictured here “taking part” in the 2012 Olympics as a volunteer!

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