This was originally published as Laura Hale’s answer to Are Paralympic athletes paid the same as Olympic athletes? on Quora.
Are Paralympic athletes paid the same as Olympic athletes? Yes, no and it depends. This rambles because the situation is… complex.
First, a lot of the money issues are dependent on national priorities, either dictated through national sporting programs like the Australia’s and the, or by the national Olympic and Paralympic Committees. These get very complex and change from country to country. The US Paralympic Committee is actually a subcommittee of the USOC, which is completely different than the which is its own body.
Further, inside each country, sport governance and hence payment may be done by the national sporting body. This could or could not be a disability sport specific organization. For example, in Spain, disability basketball is not governed by Federacion Española de Baloncesto. On the wheelchair side (I can’t recall the ID side), I believe they are governed by Federación Española de Deportes de Personas con Discapacidad Física, which is one of the member organizations of Comité Paralímpico Español. This differs completely from Australia, where wheelchair basketball is governed by, which is recognized as basketball’s governing body in Australia by the Australian Sports Commission, the Australian Olympic Committee and the Australian Paralympic Committee.
This internal structure plays a huge role in terms of how much funding and how comparable the funding from one side of the sport to other may be. In Australia, the complete integration of many sports into their larger national sporting federations coupled with a culture that values Paralympic medals as much as Olympic medals in many instances… means that your Australian disability athlete is going to get similar scholarship money to your non-disability Australian athlete on the elite level. You can actually look at this data at. Cobi Crispin and Clare Knott are both Australian women’s national wheelchair basketball players, and you can see their grants are right up there with those getting the biggest. This situation of potential equitable access to funding in Australia is also translated down to the state level institutes of sports. There is the same funding mechanism and grant system.
Other systems are again different. If we look at a comparable funding program to Australia in Spain, we havefor Paralympians and on the Olympic side. I can tell you that my understanding is the amount of scholarships available under Plan ADOP are fewer and with less money than Plan ADOP.
The USA has no such nationalized system, because by law the federal government created the USOC but does not fund it. Funding for the USA comes indirectly. On the Paralympic side, the biggest government related grants for direct support of athlete participation in sport probably come through grants for veterans, with a focus on rehabilitation. (Which actually is viewed as problematic by some people I have spoken to because they view a lack of funding for non-veterans because of lack of grants based on ability difficult for growing sport in the USA. Veterans, with their own funding sources through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are sometimes selected ahead of better athletes because of the money issue. You need to bring your own funding.)
Grant funding for countries that do this also gets complex because, well, guides. A person might require a guide to compete. Their guide has to have all the same criteria the athlete does, including things like paying to participate and passing doping tests. Some countries do not treat guide athletes the same as their VI athletes… which um… is bad for everyone. Picture being told to compete in a cycling race but doing so without having a bicycle, and you can see the problems. One… really bad example of this? Nepal barely funds their athletes, be it Paralympic or Olympic… but Paralympic less than Olympic. They sent a VI competitor to a major international competition. I believe it was the Para Asian Games in 2010. They did not send the guide he trained with, believing he could find a guide when he got to the competition. Only, except, well, no. That isn’t how this works. The media said the NPC actively talked about having one of his teammates, a guy I believe who had one leg or cerebral palsy, serve as his guide runner. The blind guy could put up better times than his teammate. Erk and erk.
In any case, Spain and Australia both fund their guides at the same level. I believe they have been pushing to do this in Brazil, but with limited success. I’m not certain the situation in other countries, and it probably differs from sport to sport. (Cycling, athletics, football and skiing are the sports that come immediately to mind as needing guides.) This issue actually matters because if there is prize money attached to winning medals, do the guides get it? (Lots and lots of people have really great guides as you need them on the super elite level. You want to win at tandem cycling? It helps to have a Commonwealth Games medalist on your bike. The same with athletics. You need some one who can keep pace with you and can train.)
Beyond the issue of grants, there is the issue of bonuses for winning medals. In some countries, these also come with benefits of lifetime pensions. In Khazakstan, they get lifetime pensions but they aren’t really comparable. The Olympians get around US$250,000 for wining a medal. Their Paralympic and Deaflympic medalists get about US$215 a month. A similar situation exists in Spain. Teresa Perales is awesome. She is Spain’s answer to Michael Phelps, winning 6 gold medals at the 2012 Summer Paralympics. Her big Paralympic payday? It was the equivalent to finishing in sixth place in women’s swimming on the Olympic side. Oh? Did I fail to mention that? Yeah. In Spain, women get smaller bonuses on the Olympic and Paralympic side for winning medals. In general, I would guess that most countries just do not fund bonuses at comparable levels.
In fact, in a lot of places where there is a government need to tighten the belt budget wise, disability sports are getting a bigger squeeze than their able-bodied sport counterparts. This is because the funds may come from different places, assumptions that the able-bodied sport side should take care of this from their general budgets, etc. This situation I believe was particularly bad in Latvia where the NPC’s budget was just absolutely killed to the point where they had real doubts about having money to get their athletes to important qualified for Rio, and then even then having the money to send them to Rio. The Olympic side is not facing the same budget cuts. Australia also did similar things. From what I understand, they took the hammer to both the APC and the AOC but the APC cuts were more damaging institutionally than the ones to the AOC.
This isn’t directly tied to payment for athletes. Sometimes, these budget cuts to save money often have really bad negative consequences for athletes. There have been situations where facility building is facing costs over runs. An easy way sometimes to shave money off the building? Get rid of some of the accessibility related items. This has happened in Georgia and Brazil an Azerbaijan. Ooops. Can’t get access to the venue to watch or easily compete.
The payment issue… sometimes, there are complexities that may not be as apparent like flexibility around payment that effectively mutes the ability to get payment on the disability sport side. The number of training facilities for people with disabilities is often way less than those who have none. Want to be a VI footballer? Want a world class swimming coach? Yeah. Your options are limited. As opposed to having maybe 10 to 100 options in your country to train? You may have 1, and you may be given a grant to train at that 1 if you can move there. For a lot of people with disabilities, moving like that is often not as easy for a variety of reasons. I’ve heard of several situations where people were offered grants and funding to go train at elite facilities but this need to move without that support network was not there, so they could not accept the money. I can’t think of any cases on the able-bodied where this has happened.
Which gets back to the idea of payment through access to similar facilities. The more progressive countries pushing the Paralympic and Olympic ideals are working on better integrating both sides of the sport. This includes having access to world class facilities. Argentina, Australia, the United States and New Zealand? They are all pretty good at giving equal access to elite training facilities. Other countries? It isn’t always the case. Elite athletes with disabilities may need to pay to use facilities, while their able-bodied peers get free access through government agreements or sponsorship deals with the venue who get to say, “World class athlete X trains here!” Sometimes, elite athletes with disabilities, especially in developing countries, get pushed into sort of a sporting ghetto because of facility accessibility issues, lack of accessibility and because people don’t want to have to expose others to this. The better countries? There is generally parity. The less great countries and some sports? Less so. I’ve heard there is a problem with wheelchair tennis players in some places because clubs just won’t let them play. This includes in Australia.
Things can get further complex in disability sport funding. Sport generally has three levels of funding on the government level: Recreational (which includes competitive), professional and elite sport. Generally in the ideal system (re: free of corruption), these funding streams are pretty much what they are, and cannot be easily diverted for other types of sport supported activities except when it is explicitly planned that way. On the disability sport side though, things get really sticky. The elite sporting federation for the sport may not support disability sport. (See the earlier example of Spanish basketball.) The disability sport specific federation may not actually support elite sport. (This is hugely common in sailing.) What this means is funding streams may be more difficult to get. It also means that some sport administrators, in trying to make a grab for cash, may say they are getting funding for elite sport but then divert that money to pay for recreational sport. This can and does happen. It means that there may technically be elite funding equivalence for disability sport in terms of pure dollars, but because of siphoning to pay for all disability sport, the amount of money reaching the elite disability sport athlete ends up being much lower than it should be.
The last issue of payment worth kind of looking at is access to educational scholarships. This mostly applies to the United States and collegiate/high school sport. There are scholarships to play at the highest level. The University of Alabama has one of the best adapted sports programs in the country, and you can get a scholarship to play wheelchair basketball and I believe other sports. This attracts the world’s best, with the Auburn women’s team having USA, Canada and Australian national team players. Alas, the number of sports with scholarships is low, and not all that comparable in volume to the able-bodied side. The scholarships might be the same monetarily, more if they get special housing that because it is disability friendly might cost more. The volume of scholarships though leaves me with a “paid less” perspective because of the fewer number of opportunities.
On the whole, they are paid less with a lot of this a result of the situation in the developing world, because of how sport is structure, and because of individual national funding priorities. In some places, for some sports and some countries, there is a tremendous level of equity in payment as it relates to availability of grants, facility access and bonuses for winning medals. This isn’t the norm though.