Feel Good Stories About Olympic Athletes Actually Feel Bad Stories About American Way

Tearjerking profiles of odds overcome are a favorite segment of Olympics coverage. A few feel-good stories from these games:  gymnast Gabby Douglas’s mom sold her jewelry and has filed for bankruptcy; swimmer Ryan Lochte’s family are losing their home; weightlifter Sarah Robles lives on a $400/month stipend from USA weightlifting and gets food assistance. And look at them now! Perseverance! Overcoming odds! The American way!  

Sarah Jaffe argues at AlterNet that these narratives aren’t heartwarming so much as they are a farce of equal-opportunity. We are meant to feel heartened at athletes overcoming the odds, but really, she says, it takes money to become an elite athlete, and the people who are able to do it  it either have money or have been given it by someone. The ways that these athletes have been able to make it isn’t because there is a system set up to help them; it’s because they’ve been able to squeeze through the cracks of a system set up for them—as anything other than wealthy Americans—to fail.

We revel in these stories of bootstraps-pulled-up, but these folks are outliers. For every Douglas and Lochte, how many kids are there whose parents couldn’t get  get off work to get them to the pool, or couldn’t afford to send them to a gym? For every Robles, how many people are there who have families to provide for and couldn’t hack it on $400 a month? So yes, feel great about stories of overcoming, but don’t think it means the American dream is alive and well.

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16 Comments / Post A Comment

Megano! (#124)

So…do you get prize money at the Olympics or something? Because as soon as the Olympics are over, Lochte’s parents would still have lost their home, etc.

wearitcounts (#772)

@Megano! i think you get something like $25,000 for a gold medal? maybe. i could be making that up.

wearitcounts (#772)

@wearitcounts ah, it varies by country. for us, it’s $25,000 for gold, $15,000 silver and $10,000 bronze. plus endorsements and prizes from sports federations.

OhMarie (#299)

@wearitcounts Yep, so basically, Lochte and Douglas will both be fine (at least in the short term) from that sweet sweet commerical money, Sarah Robles is probably still up a creek because she didn’t medal and you don’t see anybody lining up to get a female weightlifter (or, to be fair, a male weightlifter) in their commercials.

@Megano! according to the globe, Chinese diver Qui Bo stands to make $500,000 if he brings home gold. (sorry it’s an old article)

I have no idea if that’s all government money or if a lot of it is, as people say, commercial sponsorships and whatnot. I guess there must be some commercial aspect to it. Also would be interested to know if that amount is across all sports or if he is an outlier for being well known or what.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Megano! Also, Ryan Lochte’s mother insists that he’s unaware of the foreclosure, which is happening because of a divorce, and because Ryan’s mother lost her job. I’m hoping that if he were aware, he would have shuttled some of his shoe money her way.

wearitcounts (#772)

@redheaded&crazy yes, and also south korean athletes are exempt from the mandatory 2 year military service if they medal.

wearitcounts (#772)

@OhMarie that appears to be the long and the short of it :(

Megano! (#124)

@Mike Dang Me too, otherwise he is a horrible person! But for the most part, it looks like going to the Olympics probably isn’t really going to help their financial situation.

t-square (#1,401)

@wearitcounts and the North Koreans don’t have to go to labor camp. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/03/north-korea-olympics-team_n_1737181.html

Megano! (#124)

@t-square Oh man is it kind of racist of me for assuming that’s what was going on when I heard North Korea was at the games? (Also I thought they were not allowed, what with their always threatening to nuke everyone stuff)

selenana (#673)

@Megano! Yeah but the athletes aren’t their government and the Olympic committee isn’t ruled by government, right? I cried in the last last Olympics (not Beijing, before that) when the N and S Korean teams came walking out together. I would hope that no country would be banned because of their gov’t's policies, because one of the things I love most about the Olympics is the way that it (seems to, tries to) transcends politics and brings people together than might not otherwise come together anywhere else.

OhMarie (#299)

Or who did all of those things (sold stuff, bankruptcy, lost house) and then got like 5th place at the trials and didn’t get to go to the Olympics! Ahhhh! :(

I’m reminded of the old Soviet propaganda poster. One side, representing the US, shows a sad violin player busking in a gutter in New York, the other side shows a beaming Soviet violin player in an orchestra.

deepomega (#22)

This is completely bullshit and has nothing to do with America, it has to do with the weird “amateur athlete” worship. The idea that athletes should compete for glory and personal pride, not for money. Because there is a LOT of money getting made on the backs of these athletes, they just don’t get any of it. See also: College sports.

Markham (#1,862)

@deepomega

Actually all Olympic Athletes can be pro athletes now, the amateur issue is only a factor for college sports.

The problem is that few of these sports are big money makers, in the US nearly all of our Track Athletes who make the Olympic Trials are professionals with sponsors. Unfortunately 1/2 the ones ranked in the top 10 in the world make less than $15k/yr.

If you’re top 2-5 you can make really good money, with plenty of Athletes non Track Fans have never heard of enjoying solid six figure or maybe seven figure incomes.

But that’s a high profile sport like track.

Most people are competing in obscure sports and going broke and/or into debt to do it.

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