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Olympic hopefuls lose more than medals in Summer Games delay

Women wearing face masks, amid concerns of the COVID-19 coronavirus, walk past a display showing a countdown to the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on March 23, 2020.
Charly Triballeau | AFP via Getty Images

Like almost everything surrounding the coronavirus, the postponement of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo to next year has a serious economic ripple effect.

Many will be affected, says Lauryn Williams, a four-time Olympian and certified financial planner with Worth Winning in Dallas, from athletes who had already stopped earning in order to train, to full-time sponsored competitors who will likely see their income affected.

"Seasons have been canceled for most sports," Williams said. "That's prize money that can't be earned, funds no one can count on.

"If you're not sponsored, you desperately need that money."

College costs loom

The unknowns stretch from whether this year's trials will still take place, to the various levels  of decision making — international, country and national governing body — for each sport. "What about [an athlete's] fitness a year from now?" Williams said.

Athletes who were going to compete don't automatically qualify for the Games next year, she says. There's no uniform way this will be decided, Williams said, because different sports and different countries all have somewhat different time lines.

Yury Gelman, the five-time Olympic fencing coach for the U.S., says the national governing body will make the determination, but no dates for qualifying decisions have been announced.

Three of his students — who attend Harvard, Columbia and Princeton — face substantial financial burdens, as well as tough decisions. One took off two years to train.

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"What are they going to do now?" Gelman said. "They must go back to school. Their parents paid a lot of money." And, he says, you can't take indefinite amounts of time off from a school like Harvard.

In track and field, one of Williams' own Olympic disciplines, the trials were going to be held in June, so there's no way to know who was going to Tokyo.

One thing is for certain: For people who have set aside time to train full-time, this means an extra year of costs, Williams says.

"Either they worked full-time the previous year to have their one full Olympic year or did some combination of other funding," she said. The impact on people to sustain themselves and organize their income so they can continue training will be huge.

Overseas cancellations

U.S. Olympic saber fencer Monica Aksamit.
Photo courtesy of MPG Sport

Monica Aksamit, 30, is a saber fencer who represented the U.S. in the Olympics in 2016 and took home a bronze medal.

In mid-March, Aksamit began experiencing the impact of coronavirus on the Olympics. She had flown to Budapest in late February for a fencing event, then to Poland to visit family. She was about to attend a March 13 training camp outside Paris, when she found out the event was canceled. Poland then shut down passenger flights and she was stranded until last Thursday.  

"I lost a lot of money going to Europe and not competing," Aksamit said. Also canceled: a World Cup in Greece that she'd been planning on.

This past year, Aksamit raised $30,000 through modeling, refereeing tournaments and GoFundMe—more than she needed, which will help in the year to come. She did use up a fair amount, though, and went through most of the season only to have it cut off.

A 9-to-5 job would be nearly impossible, given the physical demands of training and frequent travel to training camps.

At this point, Aksamit did not know if she would compete in the Olympics, since qualifying trials had not taken place before the postponement.

Now, she says, another year doesn't make much of a difference since she has already trained for three years and raised money for this season. "It's going to be a struggle," she said. "But I'm not going to stop just because I have another year to go."

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Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.