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For U.S. Olympic Champions, Winning Isn't Free


At the Rio Olympics, Michael Phelps won big - five golds, one silver and tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.


But for American athletes, winning isn't free because, well, taxes.

KERRI ANNE RENZULLI: He could be looking at up to $55,000 in additional income tax based off of the bonuses that he got from the United States Olympic Committee.

CORNISH: That's Kerri Anne Renzulli, reporter for the publication Money. We spoke to her via Skype. The U.S. Olympic Committee awards $25,000 for gold, 15,000 for silver or 10,000 for bronze. And unlike most countries, the U.S. treats those winnings as income.

SHAPIRO: And also there's the value of the medals. That's also taxable.

RENZULLI: Yeah, I've seen estimates as low as 500 up to about 700 for gold. Silver is, like, half that. And bronze is yeah, a pittance.

SHAPIRO: Bronze is only worth about $4, according to the BBC.

CORNISH: For some politicians, that just doesn't sit well. Here's Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat from New York.

CHUCK SCHUMER: The New Yorkers and the rest of Team USA paid out of their own pockets to train and represent us in the Olympics. The least we can do is stop taxing their winnings.

SHAPIRO: Schumer co-sponsored a bill to eliminate the so-called victory tax. It passed the Senate, but hasn't gotten anywhere in the House.

CORNISH: Some analysts say creating an exemption for Olympians may not affect many athletes who write off their training and travel expenses. And as Kerri Anne Renzulli points out, the Olympians in the top tax bracket, like Phelps, tend to be pretty well off.

RENZULLI: I mean, Michael Phelps paying a $55,000 tax bill when he's valued at over 50 million is kind of very drop in the bucket.

SHAPIRO: And keep in mind the Olympics are not unique. Even the Nobel Prize is taxed in the U.S.

RENZULLI: If you're researching cancer, why is that a less noble profession and less worthy of an income tax break?

CORNISH: So for now, Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and all the other U.S. medalists will have to pay up. But maybe Congress will step in two years from now in time for the Winter Olympics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.