For every Simone Biles or Usain Bolt—athletes who make history and sign lucrative endorsement deals—there are thousands of men and women who work every bit as hard for just a fraction of the recognition. The goal: to go down in history as having reached the pinnacle of physical performance in the Olympics, that universally recognized standard of excellence. Held every four years in both winter and summer iterations, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to cap off years of training and join the world’s athletic elite.
Mental Floss spoke with several medalists about the realities of competing, from the all-you-can-eat McNuggets to the high cost of their equipment.
1. It costs Olympic athletes a small fortune to get ready.
While some teams or individuals in high-profile sports benefit from sponsorships or subsidized costs at the Olympics, the expense of training over a period of a decade or more to prepare for competition often falls on their own shoulders. Skeleton racer Kyle Tress estimates he spent well over $100,000 on the road to the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. “It’s astronomical,” he says. “A competition sled alone costs well over $10,000, and you have to buy new runners at $1000 each. Then there’s travel. Some of these places, like a ski resort in France, aren’t easy to get to.”
2. Their families swap or sell tickets.
Athletes are usually given a set number of tickets to their events, which may not match the number of friends, family, or members of their support team they’d like to attend. As a result, families often trade tickets for certain days with the families of other athletes. “My dad is in charge of tickets this year,” says Henrik Rummel, a rower who took bronze in the 2012 Games in London. “He’ll trade off days with other [athletes'] family members to fill the tickets we need. It’s crappy to only have so many tickets. I don’t even want to be involved in the process.”
3. For Olympic athletes, qualifying can be more nerve-wracking than the actual games.
Marti Malloy, a 2012 bronze medalist in judo, knew early in 2016 that she had racked up enough wins to qualify for the Rio Games. But those kinds of preliminary competitions can sometimes be more of a pressure cooker than competing in front of a billion television viewers. “There can be more nerves in a small tournament when you feel like you can’t lose,” she says. “In the Olympics, it’s like, you lost, but you lost among the best people on the planet.”
4. Olympic athletes gorge on McDonald’s.
As a longtime Olympic sponsor, McDonald’s has guaranteed itself a permanent residence in the dining hall of Olympic Village, the mini-town erected in the host city for every event. Like all the food there, it’s absolutely free. “Some athletes don’t go before their event, but after, you can walk up and ask for six cheeseburgers and they just ring it up,” Rummel says. If an athlete doesn’t need to burn fuel over a long duration, they might decide to indulge early: Sprinter Usain Bolt wrote that he devoured 1000 Chicken McNuggets in the 10-day span before and after winning three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Games.
5. Olympic athletes live in a weirdly unfinished town.
Built fresh for every Games, the Olympic Village is a multimillion-dollar landscape that resembles a college campus, with housing, dining, and open recreational areas. Oftentimes, the paint and grass will still smell fresh, and little details can get lost in the rush to finish it on time. “Our apartment door had a 2.5-inch gap on the bottom,” Tress says, which let in the cold Sochi air. One of his friends, a bobsledder, had a malfunctioning lock on his bathroom door. “He had to punch his way out.” At least he could finish his business: in some Sochi rooms, the toilets wouldn't flush.
6. Olympic athletes get their own traffic lane.
Host cities have to put up with a huge influx of traffic. As a result, Olympic athletes and staff typically have an express shortcut to and from the venues. “There were dedicated traffic lanes, which made it much easier getting around,” Rummel says.
7. Olympic athletes sometimes skip the opening ceremonies.
The pageantry that accompanies the opening ceremonies for the Summer and Winter Games is an Olympic tradition, with athletes expected to participate—but many don’t, fearing that being on their feet for up to six or eight hours might impact their performance if their event is one of the first scheduled. Malloy, who participated in the 2012 ceremonies, is an exception. “I thought about [not doing] it, but I did and won a medal anyway,” she says.
8. Olympic athletes can get a bunch of dental work done for free.
Because so many athletes work just part-time in order to be able to train, medical and dental benefits can be hard to come by, and their athletic training can be hard on the teeth. At the 2014 Games, Tress was surprised to see a dental office in Olympic Village where the care was totally free. “Most everyone on my team went and saw the dentist,” he says. “The U.S. Olympic Committee [itself] doesn’t provide dental for us. For a sport where we’re required to wear a mouth guard, that’s pretty crazy.”
9. Bronze medalists might be happier than silver medalists.
At least, that’s according to a 1995 study of photos and interviews featuring medal winners. Psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey, and Thomas Gilovich looked at photographs and listened to audio interviews of competitors taken after the 1992 Olympics and found that bronze winners seemed subjectively more pleased than the more sullen silver-medal winners. They theorized that silver medalists were disappointed when comparing themselves to gold medal winners, while bronze athletes were happy to have placed at all.
Does Rummel—who won bronze in 2012—think it holds water? “I was a little disappointed as a first reaction, but then you realize it’s special and allow yourself to celebrate. Now, I’m really proud of it. [But] it depends on the sport. A basketball team in a semifinal match might be happy to get bronze when it’s that or nothing.”
10. Olympic athletes swap clothes.
When the U.S. teams go in for processing before departing for Olympic Village, they’re entering into the world’s highest-end rummage sale: apparel from sponsors like Nike and Ralph Lauren are laid out and athletes are free to take as much as they like. “You get duffel bags full of the stuff,” Malloy says. “You have to wear it all the time so there’s enough to wear for two weeks, and we wind up trading amongst ourselves.”
11. Olympic athletes need to tiptoe around.
Because so many events take place over a two-week period, athletes who have wrapped up competitions and can celebrate need to be mindful of everyone who is still on deck. “When people are finished competing, it turns into more of a party atmosphere,” Tress says. “But you have to be respectful.” There’s no official noise ordinance, and no booze is allowed inside the Village, but victory parties are still low-key when sleeping athletes are around.
12. Olympic athletes wind up watching a lot of events on television.
Even though they can sign up for tickets to different events and see them live, some athletes are just too tired from the experience to get up from the couch. “I remember sitting in a common room watching something on television,” Malloy says. “My teammate turned to me and said, ‘I guess we could have just gone to this.’”
This article originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.