When the Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin won gold earlier this week—as part of the U.S. men’s freestyle 4-by-100 relay team that helped Michael Phelps win his 20th career gold medal—he tied the record for the longest span between medals (his last win was in 2000). But he might not have made it at all without the hundreds of fans who helped finance his journey back.
This year, more Olympic athletes have used crowdfunding to reach the Games than ever before. Sites such as Dreamfuel—a fundraising site for elite athletes that Ervin inspired—help solve a familiar dilemma: The Olympics brings in billions of dollars in ticketing, sponsorships, and broadcast revenue, yet individual athletes see very little of it. While no comprehensive studies exist, surveys of track-and-field athletes suggest that top-10 contenders make less than $16,000 per year. A recent Washington Post investigation reported that “most U.S. Olympic athletes cannot earn enough from their sports to make a living."