Your pulse is pounding, as you head down the final stretch. Every feverish stroke or explosive stride, the prospect of your lifelong dream becoming a reality inches closer and closer. You lunge forward with your body toward the finish line, or you reach for the wall through a chlorinated, eight-lane ocean of frenetic energy, as the moment swells. You've done it. Like every Olympian before you, you've earned yourself the greatest honor an American can ever hope to receive...a tax bill.

Okay, maybe not exactly how every athletes draws it up. But it is the reality for those Americans who medal at the Olympic Games.

It may surprise you to learn that the U.S. Olympic Commission awards cash prizes to Olympians who take some hardware back to the states -- $25,000 for a gold, $15,000 for a silver, and $10,000 for a bronze. This money, however, doesn't come without Uncle Sam getting his cut. It is considered earned income abroad, and subject to IRS taxation.

How much tax an Olympian pays on that bonus depends on what marginal-income tax bracket they fall into. An Olympian in a middle range tax bracket could pay as much as $7,000 per gold medal, $4,200 for silver, and $2,800 for bronze. Those who are worth millions (premiere athletes like Michael Phelps, or the star-studded basketball team comprised of multimillion dollar NBA stars), and thus subjected to the upper 39.5 percent bracket, would pay as much as $9,900 for gold, $5,940 for a silver, and $3,960 for a bronze medal. Those in the lowest -- the 10 percent bracket -- could pay $2,500 for a gold, $1,500 for a silver and $1,000 for a bronze medal. It's an issue that many have taken umbrage with, and has been the subject of various attempts at legislation to amend the tax code to prevent it, thus far without success.

I recently spoke with Sean Packard, CPA, who is the Director of Tax at Octagon Financial Services. With over a decade of experience in tax, he specializes in tax planning and preparation for professional athletes. He told me this is a straightforward issue, and he just doesn't understand the outcry about the tax.

"This is tax in its most simplified form here," he explained. "It's income tax. There's nothing complicated about it. I almost feel like someone brought it up, and everyone is too afraid to speak out against it and seem unpatriotic. They're afraid of the publicity instead of the logic."

The logic is even sounder when you consider how much an athlete stands to gain from winning a medal. Athletes, particularly those who win gold, will be able to market themselves based on their win, many of them picking up six-to-seven-figure endorsement deals in the process. What's more, premiere Olympians who already have a track record of excellence often have clauses worked into their existing endorsement contracts that pay them a bonus for every medal they receive. There's a ton of money in winning, so why should any of it be exempt from income tax?

"How it's framed by critics is that athletes are selflessly going to the games for their country, winning a medal, and suddenly getting hit with a tax," Packard said. "In reality, they're getting income, and they're paying tax on the income. People want to look at the gross $25,000 for a gold medal, but they forget to factor in the expenses the athletes have that they can deduct against the $25,000. That lowers the tax bill right there."

Still, in a political climate that is as polarized as ever before, this issue somewhat unbelievably has bipartisan support. In 2014, Congressman Blake Farenthold (R-TX) re-introduced legislation that would exempt U.S. Olympic athletes from paying taxes on the medals and the accompanying money. This year, Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) authored Senate Bill 2650, which would amend Section 74 of the Code to exempt Olympians and Paralympians from paying a medal or prize bonus. Even during the 2012 Presidential election, both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney backed a similar Senate proposal to Thune and Schumer's. But Packard said the mere fact that nothing has been passed despite years of discussion just shows that politicians seem happy to simply pay lip service to the issue rather than make any amendments to the tax code.

"What's amusing is that politicians argue that exempting Olympic athletes would simplify the tax code, when in fact amending it would actually make it more complex," Packard said. "If 2016 goes by without any big law passing, I think this just goes to show this is more political grandstanding than Congress trying to implement a change."

Published on: Mar 30, 2016
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