Almost all Olympic athletes are amateurs, not professionals, which means they don't get paid for the sports they play. Some competitions and tournaments offer prize money to the winners, but how do the athletes who don't win on any sort of consistent basis support themselves and their families when they have to spend almost every waking moment in training and don't have time for a real job? They get sponsorships. To learn more about athletic sponsorships, especially as they relate to the Olympic Games, read on.
The basic principle behind a sponsorship is that a business, such as a group of real estate agents or a small business office, provides the athlete with money to train and to live in exchange for promotional consideration. Many consider it a win win situation, because the athlete gets to pay rent, buy groceries, rent time in gyms to practice, and travel to competitions to play the sport they love, while the companies get advertising. This is the ideal model for amateur sports, but sadly not all athletes attract the attention of a sponsor. Much like we rely on our many sponsors (find one here) to help us find this website, athletes rely on sponsorship funding to help them dedicate their time to sport and pay their way wherever it may lead them.
Generally speaking, in Canada, you have to be an exceptional athlete or have a very interesting story before a sponsor will even look into supporting you. In other countries it is easier to find sponsorships. Athletes who are looking to be sponsored must compete in competitions and perform well to gain consideration and then sign a contract offering the sponsorship that says they will use and promote the company's services and continue to try their hardest at the sport in order to continue being supported by them.
Supporting an athlete, even for that last year before the Olympics, is an expensive prospect, especially given all the training time and specialized gear they need, so not all companies can afford to sponsor an athlete. Not all of them are interested, either. Sponsors tend to be companies that sell sporting goods rather than factories, as the people watching are more likely to want athletic equipment like tennis rackets than sheaves and bearings as an example. However, in Canada, the largest Olympic sponsors actually include McDonalds restaurants, Royal Bank, and Tim Hortons.
Often times athletes will cobble together enough money to train by accepting small sponsorships from a variety of different companies who are not in competition with one another. It might be paid for jointly by Hamburger Helper and Cold FX in exchange for the athlete appearing on television commercials and print ads to promote his or her personal use of the product. Mostly this practice is accepted, but these advertisements sometimes generate controversy among fans and lead to accusations of 'selling out.'