What We Should Learn from Gabby Douglas's Mom's Bankruptcy: Treat Our Olympians (And Everyone Else) Better
There are rich people's sports, and there are sports for the rest of us. Rich people can play poor people's sports, but it's damn hard for people without a lot of money to play a game that involves lots of equipment, a specialized arena, and travel. When your high school doesn't have a team for you to join, what else do you do?
Mitt Romney's wife participates in the ultimate rich person's sport: horseback riding. I'm not hating—I rode horses for years. In fact, I had to quit because I couldn't afford it anymore, and it broke my heart. It breaks my heart even more to watch the Olympics and see not only Romney's horse, but the daughter of England's Princess Anne and a member of the Saudi royal family competing—if I'd had the money they have, how good could I have been?
To get to the top in any sport requires time and sacrifice, but most of all money. So when reports came out this weekend that the families of gold-medal winners Gabby Douglas (US gymnastics, women's all-around and team gold) and Ryan Lochte (US swimming, two gold, two silver and one bronze medal) are in financial trouble, it should've shocked absolutely no one.
People have fawned over the heartwarming story of Natalie Hawkins, Douglas's mother, selling her jewelry and letting her daughter move to Iowa to train full-time to get to Olympic level, but then the AP reported that Hawkins filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in January in order to get her debt, which is mostly from her mortgage, down to a manageable size.
And Lochte's parents, who divorced recently, are facing foreclosure in Florida, the epicenter of the foreclosure fraud crisis, from CitiMortgage, which has paid hundreds of millions in settlements on foreclosure fraud. Millions of Americans are underwater on their mortgages through no fault of their own
We should read this as an indictment of a system where “amateur” athletes are expected to pay for their own coaching and training while competing “for their country” and if they make a living at all it's on endorsement deals handed out not just for talent, but for good looks (which Lochte and Douglas luckily have) and competition in a sexy sport.
Just ask Sarah Robles, a US weightlifter who was the country's highest-ranked woman but was surviving on a miserable $400 a month from USA Weightlifting, until an Internet campaign shamed a company into sponsoring her. No one, of course, seemed to think an Internet campaign asking why the US doesn't support the athletes it sends to the games. (USA Swimming apparently just upped its stipend to swimmers to $3000 a month, from $1000, two years ago.)
Douglas and Lochte and their families will probably be fine—Lochte has plenty of sponsorship deals already and his medal haul won't hurt, and Douglas is looking at millions. But let's not pretend that there isn't something wrong with a system where Mitt Romney claims a loss of $77,000 on his taxes for his wife's fancy horse and Gabby Douglas's mom is going bankrupt for being that far in debt. That there isn't a problem when swimmer Missy Franklin is considered a “rebel,” a “Bolshevik in swim goggles” because she wants to swim competitively in college rather than cashing in on more endorsements, while Sarah Robles is expected to live on $400 a month. (Franklin's parents can apparently afford to cushion their teenage daughter from the “upward of $100,000” they spent this year paying for her expenses so that she can stay amateur; could Robles or Douglas afford to make that choice?)
This isn't just a problem for US athletes, either--the Guardian noted that one fancy private boarding school has produced seven of the UK's current Olympians.
As Imara Jones at ColorLines wrote:
NBC paid almost $2 billion to carry the games and the U.S. Olympic Committee budget is $170 million, but little of it flows to the actual competitors. Even top athletes in key events struggle.
According to CNN’s Money, “only 50% of American track and field athletes who are ranked in the top ten … earn more than $15,000 a year in income from the sport.” Many struggle to pay their bills.
Jack Wickens, a U.S. Track and Field official echoes the point. “There is an in incredibly steep drop in earning power from the elite of the elite to individuals who are just slightly lower ranked.”
These athletes devote their lives to a sport that takes a toll on their body and demands their entire life; they have a brief window of the world's attention during the Olympics and then we turn away from their sports to watch our regularly-scheduled, ultra-profitable team competitions. We should take the opportunity given us from Douglas and Lochte's family struggles to consider why it is we expect these athletes to compete in our name when we give them so little in return, and what it means that the only way they can make money is shilling for a product--if a corporation deems them marketable enough, attractive enough, popular enough.
We love the hard-luck stories, the tales of selling jewelry and sleeping in one's car, but the fact is that most people who come from little money don't get a chance to become an elite athlete, to march in the opening ceremonies with the eyes of the world on them. Don't tell me that anyone can work their way to Olympic gold when I have to watch members of the British and Saudi royal families compete in a sport I had to quit because I couldn't afford it.