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Published: Sep 28, 2018 7 min read
Oksana Masters (US), winner of the gold medal in the women's sitting 5km cross-country ski event, during the medal ceremony at the XII Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang.
Oksana Masters (US), winner of the gold medal in the women's sitting 5km cross-country ski event, during the medal ceremony at the XII Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang.
Grigoriy Sisoev—Sputnik/AP

When Oksana Masters heard last week that the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to start giving Paralympians the same medal bonuses as Olympians, she burst into tears. An eight-time Paralympic medalist who was once so poor during training for the 2014 Games that she slept in her car, she was shocked by the news.

“I can’t really believe it actually happened,” Masters, a skier, cyclist and rower, tells Money. “We all put in the same dedication, the same type of sacrifices.”

It’s a significant development, both emotionally and financially, for her and her fellow athletes. Not only does the new policy increase Paralympic payouts up to 400%, but it also applies retroactively to the 2018 Games. Medal winners will get $1.2 million for their achievements this year — money many of them desperately need to cover their equipment and travel costs.

But perhaps most importantly, the decision is proof to Paralympians that the broader society is finally starting to recognize their efforts.

"This is the USOC coming forward and saying, 'We value our Paralympians as equal to our Olympians,'" says Mallory Weggemann, a Paralympic swimmer with gold and bronze medals. "And that's also saying, 'We value people with disabilities.'"

Decades of Inequality

Despite being the third-largest sporting event in the world, the Paralympics have always lagged behind the Olympics.

The Olympics started in 1896; the Paralympics launched in 1960. They don't get nearly as much media coverage, either. This winter, NBC hosted just 250 hours of the Paralympics compared to 2,400 hours of the Olympics.

“We’re still in a society where we’re trying to push the Paralympic movement forward,” Weggemann says.

The difference in medal stipends, which are awarded through the Operation Gold program, was just a piece of that. Before last week's announcement, Olympians earned $37,500 for winning gold, $22,5000 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.

Paralympians only received $7,500, $5,250 and $3,750, respectively.

It’s unclear why the payouts were not equal before. Julie Dussliere, the chief of Paralympics for the USOC, says the decision had been discussed “off and on over the years at various times,” though a concerted push started about eight months ago.

“I see this as a great component of building Paralympic awareness generally in the U.S. That’s something we’re always striving to do,” she says.

Chuck Aoki, USA, during gold medal game, Wheelchair Rugby, Sept. 18, 2016, Rio 2016 Paralympics, Rio de Janeiro.
Casey B. Gibson—Sipa USA/AP

‘None of Us Do This for the Money’

Olympians and Paralympians don't make a lot to begin with.

The USOC does not receive funding from the federal government, unlike national committees in other nations; instead, it uses private donations to the Team USA Fund to bankroll things like strength and conditioning programs, nutrition services, coaches and training centers.

Sponsorships can provide some cash, but the majority of athletes' take-home pay is tiny. As the Washington Post notes, there's no good data on overall Olympian earnings, but a recent study found that the country's top track and field stars made an average of $16,553. The internet is full of stories about past medalists forced to file for bankruptcy, apply for food stamps and crowdfund their trips to tournaments.

"None of us do this for the money," says Chuck Aoki, who has two Paralympic medals for wheelchair rugby. "It's not like this is a lucrative profession for 99.9% of athletes."

Competing in the Paralympics often presents even more of a financial hardship. Aoki says adaptive sports tend to be expensive; his own wheelchair cost $5,000. He has to pay for its new wheels, tires, tube and tape whenever they break.

“The financial side is a challenge. It’s a barrier to entry, unfortunately,” he adds.

The high cost sometimes leads Paralympians to get part-time jobs. Jeremy Campbell, a three-time paralympic medalist, says he takes on personal trainer work “to make ends meet.” He spends anything he earns from track and field competitions on basic living expenses.

Jeremy Campbell of the United States competes in the Men's Discus Throw - F44 Final on day 8 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at Olympic Stadium on September 6, 2012 in London, England.
Mike Ehrmann—Getty Images.

A Reason for Optimism

Paratriathlete Mary Kate Callahan tells Money that the pay parity will likely allow more, younger athletes with disabilities to make sports into a career. It’ll show them they’re no different than Michael Phelps or Missy Franklin.

“To be the best in the world, you want to be able to put your heart and soul into it. This is another incentive to do that,” Callahan says.

In that sense, the medal bonus decision is more than a milestone — it could have demonstrable benefits for Team USA. Katie Holloway, vice chair of the USOC’s Athlete Advisory Council, says it’s exciting to imagine what Paralympians will be capable of now that they’re well-funded.

“When I just take it all away and I look at the amount of money that is potentially winnable now for our athletes — literally, the Oksana inside of me is crying,” Holloway, also a decorated sitting volleyball star, says. “Because it’s so much money to us. It makes it whether or not we could compete again. It’s a downpayment on a house. Those are life-changing numbers.”

Many Paralympians say they hope this is the first step of many in getting more coverage and support for the games. They’re especially buoyed by the fact that the 2028 Games are on their home turf: Los Angeles.

For Masters, though, the decision has a more immediate effect. She recently broke her right prosthetic leg — the one she uses to get around every day in between training sessions — and a replacement was going to cost thousands of dollars she didn’t have.

"My insurance is good, but not good enough to where they would cover my leg. I was stressed about, 'How am I going to walk for the next four years?'" she says, referring to the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

But because she won medals in PyeongChang, she’s now in line to get some extra cash. And Masters knows exactly what to do with it.

"I'm going to get this new leg," she says. "I'm going to be investing in a new knee that I can walk and train for Tokyo."