Swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in American history. He is also plenty rich.
Phelps returns to the pool when the 2012 Summer Olympics begin later this week. But the 14-time champion has already won the real-life game of Monopoly, translating his spectacular showing in the 2008 Games into a $40 million windfall.
But when Michelle Davison-Sandelin was a diver for Team USA eight years before, all she got for a radio advertisement was a few bottles of sunblock. As for Jim Millns, a bronze-medal ice dancer in the ’76 Winter Games, he couldn’t even accept a trinket from a fan without fear of losing his eligibility.
Put simply, we live in a different world now, where the earning potential for Olympians is limitless, depending on sport, success and force of personality. Yet in one sense, they are all the same — members of a rarified club that doesn’t discriminate based on wealth or fame.
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“We have a motto that once an Olympian, always an Olympian,” said Millns, a grandfather of six who now lives in the Tampa area. “It doesn’t matter if you got a medal or not. When Olympians gather, there’s this great respect for one another, regardless the sport.”
Of course, respect alone doesn’t pay the bills. It doesn’t guarantee a glamorous, trouble-free life. And it doesn’t completely fill the creeping emptiness felt by many once the spotlight shifts away for good.
While today’s most successful athletes are able to turn excellence into lasting riches, countless Olympians, particularly those of eras past, have little to show from their glory days but fond memories — and for the lucky few, cherished pieces of gold, silver or bronze.
“There’s this huge high at the Olympic Games, and then afterwards, there’s this emotional lull,” said Davison-Sandelin, now the diving coach at Florida Atlantic University. “You go out in the real world, and there’s something missing.”
Added Millns, president of Florida’s Olympic alumni association: “There is an awful lot of people who train their whole lives to reach the Olympics, have that grand, glorious moment, and then it’s gone. When I was training, we didn’t even have money to eat. My roommate and I would live on Corn Flakes and Kool-Aid.
“Then a few years after I competed, you’d start seeing these athletes make the mega-bucks.”
In the coming weeks, someone you’ve never heard of before will become a name you’ll never forget. That’s the magic of the Olympics. Who knew about the pint-sized Kerri Strug before her heroic, one-legged vault in 1996? The Jamaican bobsled team had a movie made about them — and they didn’t even win a medal.
But for every Greg Louganis and Miracle On Ice, there are thousands of people like Gerald Tinker, the sprinter from Coconut Grove who was part of the United States’ gold medal-winning 400-meter relay team in the 1972 Games.
Forty years later, Tinker is a personal trainer and three-time divorcé living modestly in Southern California. After claiming gold in Munich, Tinker had a short career in pro football before a knee injury ended his competitive days for good.
“I was just like America,” Tinker said. “I would spend money so fast, that come every September, I would run out of it.”
After football, Tinker got a job with Eastern Airlines as a ramp worker. He remained with the company for a decade, and got out shortly before it went belly-up. That’s when he moved West and became self-employed.
But while others try to make their 15 minutes of fame last a lifetime, Tinker says he barely knows where he has stashed his gold medal half the time. He doesn’t display it in his home, and only gets it out when guests ask to see it. Tinker claims he hasn’t even attended a track meet since his Olympic days and doesn’t miss the spotlight at all.
But Larry Black — Tinker’s cousin and teammate on the championship relay team — left the main stage in far more destructive fashion. Like Tinker, Black grew up in Miami, and returned here after a brutal leg injury sapped his speed in 1974. Soon thereafter, Black got hooked on cocaine, the start of a two-decade collapse that left him a petty thief, living on the streets.
Black ultimately beat the habit, and, like his cousin, became an athletic trainer. Well-heeled members of the South Florida community raised enough money to send Black to the 1996 Atlanta Games as a spectator, a memory he cherished until his premature death in 2006. He died of an aneurysm.
“All of us have our ups and downs, including me,” Tinker said. “But it’s all about what you do when you get up off your knees. [Black] walked tall.”
Tragedy likewise cut short swimmer Matt Gribble’s life. A former world record-holder and a member of the U.S. Olympic team, Gribble was involved in a fatal head-on car wreck near his home in Kendall eight years ago. He had no chance of avoiding a wrong-way driver, and died just days before his 42nd birthday.
His 3-year-old son Trahern was in the car but survived the crash. Like his dad, young Trahern Gribble is now a competitive swimmer.
Gribble, Black and Tinker were products of a long-gone era where the Olympics were truly an amateur endeavor. Patriotism should trump all financial concerns, participants were told.
But with Bruce Jenner’s appearance on the Wheaties box in the late 1970s, the financial tide began to turn.
Long before Jenner was Kim and Kourtney Kardashian’s wacky stepdad, he was one of the planet’s premier athletes. He won the gold in the decathlon in 1976, became an American hero, and cashed in with endorsement deals and appearance fees — but only after renouncing his amateur status, per Olympic rules at that time.
The International Olympic Committee has since relaxed its eligibility standards and now allows pro athletes to compete. That, in turn, has opened advertising floodgates. Phelps has sponsorship deals with Speedo, Subway and Under Armour (and would have more, if a few snapshots of him with a drug pipe hadn’t surfaced).
Still, the idea of overtly profiting on an invitation to participate in the Olympics is radioactive. Just ask Dwyane Wade, the Heat superstar and member of the 2008 men’s basketball championship team. Wade inadvertently stepped into minefield earlier this year when he suggested that Olympic basketball players should be paid — a stance he softened after considerable blowback.
“I didn’t look at it anything financial,” said Bob Beamon, who with just one jump in the 1968 Games joined the pantheon of Olympic legends. “At that time, there was no talk about sponsorships. I did it because I loved it.”
If you’re too young to know who Beamon is, simply Google his name for the remarkable footage of his historic jump in Mexico City. Beamon shattered the world long jump record by nearly two full feet — the modern-day equivalent of hitting a 600-foot home run — and when he realized what he accomplished, collapsed in overwhelming joy.
Beamon’s feat was such a sensation that the Phoenix Suns drafted him in the 15th round the following year — even though he hadn’t played seriously since he was a kid.
But aside from a few minor commercials spots, his golden jump hasn’t translated into great wealth. Beamon went to work for a savings and loan after graduating from college and then lived abroad for a spell before moving to Miami in the early 1980s. He spent more than two decades working for the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, then in 2009 became Chicago State University’s associate athletic director. He retired last year, only to accept a job back in Florida, as CEO of Fort Myers’ Art of the Olympians Museum and Gallery.
A TEACHING ROLE
While Beamon has tried a bit of everything, many ex-jocks are like Davison-Sandelin, the coach at FAU, and local swim teacher Robert Strauss. Quite often, those too old to do, teach.
Strauss, a graduate of the University of Miami, swam in the 1972 Olympics for his native Mexico, but was far from a star.
After graduation from UM, Strauss sold shoes for a time before becoming a swimming coach at Ransom Everglades.
Now over 60, he still runs the Swim Gym school and team — although he claims he doesn’t miss his time as a competitor one bit.
As evidence: When his eligibility at UM was up, he threw his goggles into a funeral pyre.
“It was a way of saying, ‘I’m done with this [expletive],’ ” Strauss said.
When asked if he ever saw any money from his days as an Olympian, Strauss scoffed.
“We live in a very dangerous age because we’re glorifying gladiators like they did in Rome,” he said. “When you hear about a guy who signs a contract for $6 million ... I’ve worked since I was 17, and if you add up all my W-2s, maybe I’ve put together $2 million.
“My wealth is not in the bank,” he said. “It’s in the thousands of people I taught how to swim.”