Where Does a Gold Medal Really Pay?

The 2014 Winter Olympics kick off in three days, and one thing is certain: Winning a gold medal is awesome. But winning a gold medal and being handed a bonus check for $250,000? Time for me to find a Kazakhstani husband and finally master the art of ice dancing.

And while it’s unlikely Kazakhstan will give out many bonuses (the country has won only six medals in the winter games since competing as an independent nation in 1994), even strong medal contenders like Russia are upping the ante for this year’s home games in Sochi. The U.S., on the other hand, remains steadfast with more modest prize winnings: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, $10,000 for bronze.

Below are the bonus amounts for various countries, as compiled by Bloomberg reporter Stepan Kravchenko in Russia and sorted by the number of medals won in 2010:

A country’s relative wealth had little bearing on the amount of the bonus given. Wealthy nations like Norway and Sweden don’t offer their Winter Olympians any bonuses, maybe because cross-country skiing medals alone would bankrupt the two countries. In typical Swiss fashion, the world’s most enviable country is 1) still rich and 2) still really nice to its citizens, especially those who win gold medals. Switzerland is the biggest outlier when comparing nations’ wealth with their bonus offerings—for the rest of the countries we sampled, a small gross domestic product (GDP) per capita was strongly correlated with a large bonus:

With a GDP per capita of only about $12,000 U.S. dollars, Kazakhstan’s hefty bonus seems even more exorbitant. This year’s largest bonus is also likely the reason behind biathlete Elena Khrustaleva’s third citizenship switch. Khrustaleva took home the silver medal for Kazakhstan in the women’s biathlon in 2010 after competing for both Belarus and Russia in prior Olympics. If she wins this year, she will take home the largest winnings.

For all of the countries from which we received data, there was no distinction between the difficulty of the sport and the amount of the bonus awarded. In the event that ski orienteering is reinstated for the 2018 Winter Games, however, bonuses for merely surviving the race should absolutely be given.

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