Bringing Home the Gold

Friday marked the Opening Ceremonies of the Games of the XXX Olympiad. Britain's Queen Elizabeth, along with her Corgis, made their film debut parachuting into the stadium with superspy James Bond. The world's eyes are waiting to see who takes home the gold — and whenever someone takes home "the gold," you know the IRS will be there to help them count it!

How excited do our friends at the IRS get when the Olympics roll around? Well, believe it or not, there's an argument to be made that the medals themselves are taxable. Way back in 1969, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that shortstop Maury Wills owed tax on the $10,000 value of the Hickock Belt he received for being named Athlete of the Year. But the IRS isn't taxing Olympiads on their medals — at least, not yet. (Would that mean a Gold medal is just a Silver, after taxes?)

The United States Olympic Committee — the nonprofit organization that coordinates U.S. Olympic efforts — awards its own cash prizes to U.S. medalists. Those prizes are $25,000 for each Gold medal, $15,000 for each Silver, and $10,000 for each Bronze. That income is obviously taxable.

But the IRS knows the real payoff doesn't come from the medal itself. The real payoff comes from endorsement deals the stars make. Take swimmer Ryan Lochte, for example. On Saturday, he dethroned Michael Phelps as king of the mens' 400 meter individual medley. Lochte had already appeared in commercials for Nissan, AT&T, Gatorade, and Gillette, before the games had even begun. Fortune magazine estimates he'll make $2.3 million this year, before any bonuses for, you know, actually bringing home an Olympic medal. Forbes estimates that if Lochte picks up more gold in London, his endorsements might actually top those of Phelps. And Bloomberg BusinessWeek guesses that Phelps made $6 million in 2010. With possibilities like that, you can be sure the IRS will have their fingers crossed for Thursday's 200 meter individual medley!

Some athletes do well in competition and do well in endorsements, but still manage to disappoint the IRS. In 2010, skiier Lyndsey Vonn took home the gold in womens' downhill, which led to endorsement deals with Under Armour, Red Bull, Rolex, and Kohl's. Earlier this year, the IRS slapped her with a lien for $1.7 million in tax. (Lyndsey promptly settled her debt, blamed it on a nasty divorce from her husband and trainer, and apologized on her Facebook page.)

Olympic fame and fortune can pay financial dividends for decades to come. Thirty-six years ago, a determined American athlete named Bruce Jenner became a national hero, setting a new Olympic record while winning the gold in the decathlon. Three decades later, he's making headlines again as stepfather to those krazy Kardashian sisters. Is it paranoid to start wondering now which of today's Olympic champions will preside over a reality-TV train wreck in 2042?

We realize that few of you are reading these words from Olympic Village in London's East End. But it's important to plan ahead for any sort of special prizes or windfalls you enjoy. Whether you're bringing home a medal, or you just want to keep more of the gold you've already got, we're here for you, and for your family, friends, and colleagues, too.

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