Romney's Olympic tax myth

Republicans are outraged that Obama will tax Olympic athletes. Why he probably won't, but he should anyway

By Alex Seitz-Wald
Published August 2, 2012 8:26PM (EDT)

More than catnip, this latest conservative tax myth is like a designer drug for the Fox News set, tailored perfectly for maximum impact at a time when Americans are hungry for anything Olympics-related. The offense: According to Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist’s anti-tax outfit, President Obama’s IRS will tax Olympic winners up to $9,000 after they return home victorious from London. Conservative blogs are having a field day and Republican politicians are clamoring to capitalize on news. Darling Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida introduced a bill to exempt Olympians’ winnings from taxes and an adviser to Mitt Romney told reporters today, "He believes that there should be no taxation of the type you are describing.” They're calling on Obama to support the plan.

The only problem: It’s not really true. In addition to their medals, American winners are given prize money from the U.S. Olympic Committee: $25,000 for gold, $15,000 for silver, and $10,000 for bronze. Their medals are also worth about $675, $385 and under $5, respectively. ATR says this all gets taxed at 35 percent, meaning a gold medalist owe $8,986, silver winners owe $5,385, and bronzers owe $3,502.

First off, the medals aren't subject to taxes. Mark Jones, the communications director for the U.S. Olympic Committee told Salon in an email, "There is no 'value' to medals and there is no tax associated with it."

As for the prize money, according to Politifact, ATR’s claim is “mostly false.” Consulting accountants who have worked with athletes, the fact-checking website noted that while the money is certainly taxable, athletes could deduct all the expenses that went into getting them to the podium, including travel costs, equipment, training and coaching fees from the previous year. Those are all considered business expenses, and could lower or even eliminate an athlete's tax liability, depending how much they spent. Moreover, the 35 percent rate assumes athletes are in the highest income bracket, earning over $380,000 a year. While some Olympians certainly make millions, the majority of athletes probably do not. Many are barely scraping by, lacking sponsorship deals and unable to work full-time due to training demands. (We wrote yesterday about marathoner Guor Marial, who works from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. at a home for mentally disabled adults every night so he can spend his days training.) This would put them in a lower tax bracket where they would pay far less, or even nothing, on their winnings, even before deductions.

A quick Nexis search revealed zero stories from 2004 and 2008 about Olympians being taxed for their winnings. One would think, judging by how much attention the story is getting today, that there would have been articles written then about disappointed athletes who returned home to find a hefty tax bill. We did find several stories like that, but they were all from Canada.

Moreover, while it may be politically popular to exempt Olympic winnings, there’s no real reason why they should be treated any differently from, say, the prize money that comes with winning a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, or even the lottery, all of which are taxed like any other income. Past Nobel laureates have complained about being taxed for their prize, which at about $1.4 million, would produce a much larger bill than the gold medalist’s winnings.

“There is no principled basis to tax Olympic prizes any less than Nobel prizes, earnings or lottery winnings.  If Congress wants to give Olympic winners more money, it should transparently give them more money rather than create an obscure tax expenditure to do exactly the same thing," David Miller, a tax attorney with Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in New York, told Salon.

So Rubio and Romney, are Nobel laureates any less deserving than Olympians of special treatment?

Alex Seitz-Wald

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2012 Olympics Marco Rubio Mitt Romney Olympics Taxes