This post has been updated to reflect that the House of Representatives approved a tax break for Olympians Thursday by a vote of 415 to 1. The Senate approved a similar bill earlier this year. President Obama is expected to sign a version of this bill into law.
Should Olympians and Paralympians have to pay taxes on their medals and prize money?
For decades, the answer to that question — at least in the federal tax code — has been yes. This year, the program hit two milestones: U.S. athletes won their 1,000th Olympic gold medal in the summer games — more than double any other country in modern times. And Congress looks poised to cut those winners a tax break.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted for a bill to give Olympians who make $1 million or less a year a tax break, and its chances in the Senate look promising, given senators unanimously approved a similar bill earlier this year.
To be sure, this isn’t a new idea. For the past few Olympics, Congress has toyed with the idea of making those winnings tax free. Legislation was buzzy but never got anywhere, as critics argued the tax break would be unfair to those of us who never get anywhere near a podium.
But the political dynamics of 2016 is swaying in favor of Olympians. When you combine the country’s record-breaking Olympic success with the fact that the United States is one of the only countries that doesn’t subsidize Olympic athletes — many of whom are struggling to get by — you can make a pretty compelling case for giving them a tax break. And lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have.
Here’s a breakdown of the debate over taxing Olympians’ winnings:
Why are Olympians’ medals and prize money taxed?
Because it’s income. The U.S. Olympic Committee awards gold medalists $25,000, silver medalists $15,000 and bronze medalists $10,000. Many U.S. sports organizations give their winners cash on top of that. And the medals themselves — made of silver or copper — are valued anywhere from $564 to $300, reports CNN Money. (The bronze is worth about $5, so that’s not taxed.)
The IRS treats all of those winnings the same way it does your and my paycheck: by taxing it as income. And how much income you make determines how much you’ll pay in taxes, so more income from a stellar Olympic performance ostensibly means more taxes.
So how much do Olympian medalists have to pay?
That’s up for debate. In 2012, Grover Norquist’s conservative tax reform group Americans for Tax Reform wrote a buzzy blog post declaring Olympians who win gold could pay “up to $9,000 in taxes.” They argued that simply wasn’t fair: “Our Olympic athletes face a competitive disadvantage that has nothing to do with sports.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) backed up Norquist by introducing a bill to make Olympic athletes’ winnings tax exempt.
But Politifact rated the claim that athletes would be charged $9,000 “mostly false.”
The nonpartisan fact checking team didn’t take a stand on whether Olympians should be taxed, but they pointed out that most Olympians don’t reach the higher tax bracket that would merit the government taking such a significant percentage of their winnings. And athletes can deduct their training expenses, so that “any accountant worth their salt should be able to get the rate of tax on medal winnings much below $9,000, and maybe even to zero.”
(Americans for Tax Reform published a blog post in August arguing the same thing, arguing $9,000 was the “maximum possible tax amount.”)
What’s the argument against giving this tax break?
That it’s unfair to the rest of America. By giving them a break on their winnings, the U.S. government is making a statement that Olympians’ successes are worth more than the rest of ours.
Thought leaders on the left seem to be the ones carrying this argument.
“There is no moral or economic case for exempting the earnings of Olympic athletes over other categories of workers. Is the work done by athletes really more important than that of computer programmers, doctors, firefighters, or soldiers?” wrote the progressive think tank Citizens for Tax Justice earlier this month.
“The underlying issue is that taxes aren’t supposed to be a cosmic judgment on the underlying worthiness of people’s activities,” wrote left-leaning columnist Matthew Yglesias in Slate in 2012. “The earnings of a great artist and a reality TV show producer are taxed the same.”
“Rubio’s Olympic medal bill would give Michael Phelps hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax breaks,” wrote the progressive news site ThinkProgress in 2012. (Phelps is one of the few U.S. Olympic athletes who has managed to get rich off his performances every four years.)
All the critics noted that Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners (and lottery winners) still have to pay taxes on their winnings.
What happened to Rubio’s bill?
Despite some opposition, when Rubio introduced his bill in 2012, it looked like it was on its way to becoming law. President Obama even endorsed it.
But the bill never even got a hearing in the Senate. It’s unclear why, but there are several possibilities.
Bills die in the Senate for a variety of reasons: The committee chair has other priorities. Congress runs out of time. But the most common reason bills fail to advance is that there’s just not a whole lot of interest in it among lawmakers and constituents. If you’re a congressional leader why spend your limited time debating and voting on a bill if lawmakers don’t care enough care to pass it?
Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Tex.) speculated to the Washington Examiner in July that Congress may have been holding out for a broader tax reform bill that never came.
For whatever reason, all the buzz about giving Olympians a tax break during the London Olympics quickly died down after the games ended.
But 2016 seems to be different
This year, the tax-break proposal has gotten further than it ever has before. Like, way further.
The Senate passed a bill in July. It was sponsored by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and cosponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). (Side note: Thune’s tweet about the bill after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles won gold didn’t go over that well.)
— Senator John Thune (@SenJohnThune) August 12, 2016
The U.S. Olympic Committee even issued a statement saying they’d appreciate the help. “This bill could assist many athletes as they train to compete for the United States,” the committee said, according to the Washington Examiner.
Taking this up was one of the first things Congress did in September. A key tax committee in the House of Representatives made this bill, sponsored by Rep. Bob Dold (R-Illinois), a priority. It would likely apply to this year’s Olympians and Paralympians even though the games ended in August.
“It seems like a small thing, but when America’s Olympians and Paralympians bring home the gold, our nation should congratulate them – not send the IRS to claim a share of their medal,” said Ways and Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-Texas) in a statement Monday.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) supported the bill and allowed it to come up for a speedy vote in the House. It’s not hard to see how the argument for a tax break for Olympians fits neatly with conservatives’ broader philosophy that government should get out of Americans lives and stop taxing their hard-earned work.
And President Obama has given no indication he opposes the bill.
Giving Olympians a tax break is one thing it seems most of Washington can agree on.