Sarah Robles’ long path to the 2012 Summer Olympics was not paved in gold.
As a weightlifter, her sport’s not the costliest of Olympic pursuits. Equipment costs are limited to wrist wraps, a weightlifting belt and shoes, and a good set of weights. But you still have to get an elite-level coach. You still have to pay travel costs for pre-Olympic weightlifting events inside the United States and internationally. And as a full-time athlete, you still need to figure a way to pay for housing and food.
Here are the sacrifices the 24-year-old from Desert Hot Springs, Calif., made in order to make the Olympic team, fly to London and finish in seventh place in weightlifting’s top weight class:
She got slapped with a 30-day notice of eviction, then got kicked out of her house when she couldn’t afford to make payments on her security deposit. She shared a room with a weightlifting friend at the friend’s grandma’s house. She went to food banks to get food and learned how to cook the strangest things. (What do you make when all you have is a bag of peppers?) She coached and did odd jobs at the gym to defray costs. She got into trouble with the government, like the $700 in 2009 back taxes she finally paid back this year. She held camps and clinics to raise money for her Olympic journey. She graciously accepted donations from family and friends. She walked into the gym one day and found a pile of groceries and toiletries waiting for her, plus a substantial gift card to Wal-Mart, all from an anonymous donor. She happily accepted a $1,000 donation from P&G so her mother, who’d never been out of the country, could fly to London.
“My paying them back was my performance here,” said Robles, who has dreamed about making the Olympics since she was 14. “They invested in me to do the best I can.”
As we hear about multi-million dollar endorsement deals for gymnasts and swimmers, as we see the richest athletes in the NBA strut around London, as we hear about American athletes getting $25,000 (plus an additional check from their sporting organizations) as gold-medal bonuses, it can be easy to forget that for most Olympians the Games are the opposite of a cash cow. Instead, they’re often a giant suck on the bank account.
Consider a recent report from the Track and Field Athletes Association, which showed that half of American track athletes who rank in the top-10 nationally – in one of the flashiest of the Olympic sports – make less than $15,000 annually from their sport. And that includes sponsorship money.
Compare that to our neighbors across the pond.
After Great Britain only won one gold in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta and finished 36th in the medal count, the government formed an independent office called UK Sport tasked to develop Olympic athletes. Correspondingly, as the program has grown leading into their hometown Games this year, the money has translated into medals. In 2000 and 2004 Great Britain finished 10th in the medal count; in Beijing four years ago, the country ranked fourth. It currently ranks third in the medal count in London, which can be attributed to its “No Compromise” ramped-up athlete improvement program that began when London was awarded the 2012 Games.
How much money do the medals cost? UK Sport passed on nearly half a billion dollars to the 1,200 British athletes in this year’s Olympics and Paralympics, funding that’s split about 50-50 between government money and National Lottery proceeds. (More than a quarter of National Lottery moneys go to a variety of good causes.) Funding for individual sports runs from nearly $2 million for table tennis all the way to nearly $43 million for rowing. That doesn’t include funding for individual elite athletes, which can pay each athlete up to about $42,000 a year. Countries like China and Russia funnel their athletes into elite sporting programs where costs are taken care of.
Yet during these Olympics, fans in America have been shaken by news of the financial struggles of families of two of our most famous and successful 2012 American Olympians.
Ryan Lochte’s parents are facing foreclosure of their home in Florida. And earlier this week it was revealed that the mother of Gabby Douglas, the 16-year-old gold medal-winning gymnast and the breakout American star of these Olympics, had filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy earlier this year.
When Gabby was asked by reporters Monday about her family’s financial struggles – and what her enormous Olympic success will mean to her family – she answered like a champion, with an honesty and maturity that belied her years.
“It was really hard for us,” said Gabby, who moved from Virginia to Iowa for two years to train for these Olympics. “My dad had left us. He wasn’t really in the picture anymore. So my mom had to front all these bills. My dad didn’t really pay the child support. He was coming short. So it was definitely hard on her part. She had to take care of me and the rest of my siblings.”
The girl realized that her newfound fame means a degree of financial independence for her and her family: “Life’s going to be very different. I’m not going to go anywhere without people noticing me.”
But behind that is also a more sad truth: That so many American athletes make so many financial sacrifices to make the Olympics, yet so few see the lucrative gold at the end of the path.
For Robles, the female weightlifter, her difficult, impoverished earlier life prepared her for these Olympic-sized sacrifices. When Robles’ mother, Joy, was pregnant with her, Robles said, she was homeless, living in a van while her dad lived in a tent. Throughout her childhood the family lived hand to mouth, with Robles’ mother working at McDonald’s and Price Club. Then, when Robles’ was 11, her dad had a stroke. Her mother quit work to take care of him until he died.
You could imagine that earlier this week, when Robles and her mother were at the P&G House, a comfortable spot near London Bridge where American Olympians and their families could hang out and get free food, Robles would soak in the moment. She had come from nothing. She had sacrificed everything. She was an Olympian, at the top of the sporting world. Her story of sacrifice made her Olympic pedigree that much more impressive.
“I don’t think it means anything more to me than anyone else,” Robles said. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t sacrifice everything in our lives to get here and get to this point. Everything that happened in my life prepared me for this moment.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.