For those who have grown up in a world where athletes can reap immense wealth from their physical prowess, it might come as quite a shock to some people to discover that Olympic athletes have not always seen financial gain from their athletic glory.
In fact, in days gone by, there wasn’t even the expectation now so prevalent in society that Olympic gold will inevitably be parlayed into actual gold; (what a novel concept; train hard all your life to be the best at something you love without the motivation of a lucrative endorsement deal dangling in front of your face!).
Well, those days are effectively over, but they haven’t departed without their fair share of casualties.
As difficult as it may be to believe, there are those Olympic champions from the good ol’ days who never saw the kind of financial cash cow that a gold medal now ensures. Much of this had to do with the time and place in which they competed, as well as the kind of atmosphere they could expect once they returned to their homelands, despite being international athletic superstars.
One thing is certain however, in another time and place, all of the following sports demi-gods would certainly have prospered much more in today’s climate of fevered celebrity athlete worship and its accompanying virtually unlimited wealth.
5. Mark Spitz – Swimming
After winning five gold medals at the 1967 Pan Am Games, Mark Spitz had enormous pressure to translate those victories into Olympic gold at the 1968 games in Mexico City. He failed to win an individual medal, which only upped the intensity for his expectations in Munich in 1972.
His performance there was nothing short of astonishing.
Spitz became the first athlete to earn seven gold medals in a single Olympic games and did so setting seven world records in the process, a simply incredible feat of athletic prowess. To no one’s surprise, Spitz became an overnight sensation and a global superstar.
Were it not for the fact that Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and eventually murdered 11 Israeli athletes, and that Spitz is Jewish and left Munich just hours after this horrific ordeal began, the 1972 games would likely be remembered as the ‘Mark Spitz Olympics,’ and rightfully so.
Although Spitz did receive numerous endorsement deals and would eventually found an extremely successful real estate business in California, it’s difficult to believe that had he performed his extraordinary athletic feats today, he wouldn’t likely be among the richest athletes of all time, solely on the strength of his incredible talent.
Times have indeed changed.
4. Nadia Comaneci – Gymnastics
At the tender age of 14 when she competed at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, Nadia Comaneci became a household name by upstaging her idol Olga Korbut with a dazzling gymnastics performance that launched the unknown Romanian teen into international sports superstardom.
She not only won gold in the balance beam, uneven bars and all-around events, a silver in the team event and a bronze in the floor exercises, but she also did so while becoming the first athlete in the modern era to receive a perfect score of 10 in six events, a feat that has never been repeated. She later won two gold and two silver medals at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
Her performances were nothing short of spectacular and set a new standard for the sport that has yet to be achieved by any gymnast.
Were she to do so today, few would argue that her athletic glory would be the catalyst for tremendous financial prosperity as well. But returning to her native Romania, then under Soviet rule, meant anything but.
Lucrative endorsement deals were simply not part of the Soviet culture, and while in Romania Nadia never saw the kind of wealth that many Western athletes accepted as their due.
Eventually defecting to the United States in 1989 and marrying U.S. star gymnast Bart Conner in 1996, Comaneci did garner some advertising deals, but nothing that could be said to rival those that today’s Olympic champions routinely receive.
While she and Conner own a very successful business running numerous gymnasiums, it’s clear that Nadia Comaneci was never suitably rewarded for her unbelievable Olympic performances during her athletic career, a fact that would be unthinkable today given the breadth of her accomplishments.
3. Olga Korbut – Gymnastics
Women’s gymnastics has always been among the most popular sports at the Olympic games, and in Munich in 1972, a superstar was born who would propel that popularity into the stratosphere.
Olga Korbut was only 17 when she literally somersaulted her way into international fame by executing a series of moves on the balance beam and parallel bars that no one else had ever done successfully in competition, charming the entire world at the same time.
Her precocious and youthful exuberance was part of the magic that saw her win four gold medals and two silvers at the 1972 and 1976 games, and elevate women’s gymnastics to the level of an elite sport that every little girl who could do a handstand was now dreaming of competing in.
In any subsequent era, this would surely mean more lucrative endorsements than she could shake a backflip at, but no. As a resident of the then Soviet Union, Olga Korbut returned to her homeland as a global superstar, but never saw the kind of monetary success that should have been hers automatically.
She remained in the then U.S.S.R. and became a teacher, before emigrating to the U.S. with her family in 1991 where she taught gymnastics for many years, but never saw the financial rewards that her Olympic triumphs should have ensured.
While her enduring legacy rests in the stupendous brilliance of her athletic accomplishments, Olga Korbut has never been financially compensated for being among the most innovative and talented athletes who ever graced an Olympic stage, something many of today’s competitors simply take for granted.
2. Tommie Smith and John Carlos – Track and Field
For those who are unaware, the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City was the venue for the first openly political and civil rights statement of the modern era in sport.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos, American sprinters who won gold and bronze respectively in the 200 meters, took the opportunity of having a global audience to raise awareness for civil rights and the struggle for equality among Black Americans by raising their arms in the fisted Black Power salute, causing a global sensation.
In so doing, they invited a largely White media to crucify them for what they deemed as an act of aggression against the United States. As a result they were both suspended from the U.S. team and received countless threats against their lives.
Not unexpectedly, this did very little to attract endorsements or other financial opportunities for either of the Hall of Fame track stars, who were actively portrayed as ‘un-American’ by a hostile media.
In an environment that today lauds those athletes with the tenacity to make bold political statements regardless of the consequences, it’s hard to believe that either Smith or Carlos would not be hailed rather than derided for their courage, or reap the financial rewards that routinely go with today’s examples of celebrity athlete activism.
Sadly, this was the case and therefore no financial success ever materialized for either of them.
1. Jesse Owens – Track and Field
The Berlin Olympics of 1936 was supposed to be Chancellor Adolf Hitler’s international showcase for the legitimacy of his Nazi party’s ‘Master Race’ ideology. There was only one gigantic problem standing between Fascist glory and reality however, and his name was Jesse Owens.
Born the son of a poor sharecropper in Oakville, Alabama, Jesse Owens suffered from pneumonia and bronchial congestion as a child, which left little room for sports, thought it didn’t prevent him from having to pick cotton all day.
However, by High School Owens was displaying the incredible athletic abilities that would make him one of the most successful and revered athletes in history, and was impressive enough to earn himself a spot on the U.S. Olympic team just a few short years later.
In terms of athleticism, Owens’ four gold medals (100 and 200 meters, 400 meter relay and long jump) and the two world records he set during the 1936 games, were by far the most outstanding achievements by any competitor, and did more to eviscerate Nazi propaganda than any political act could possibly have done. In fact, after witnessing Owens crush the field in the 100 meter finals, Hitler was so enraged he stormed out of the stadium, refusing to present the gold medal to Owens personally.
For a few brief, shining moments in 1936, Jesse Owens was simply an outstanding American athlete and not a Negro, though it was not to last. You would think that this level of success would open new opportunities and financial rewards for Owens, but you would be wrong.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to meet with Owens, an event which was common for Olympic champions and a slight that wasn’t rectified until President Gerald Ford honored him at the White House in 1976 with the Presidential medal of Freedom.
“When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn’t ride in the front of the bus,” said Owens. “I had to go to the back door. I couldn’t live where I wanted. I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either.”
As for monetary gain from his Olympic triumph, it was not to be.
After retiring from amateur sports after the 1936 games, Owens was reduced to racing against horses and cars to augment his living, and never saw the kind of endorsements or fiscal opportunities routinely offered to White athletes. Although he did briefly play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters, none of his post-Olympic jobs could be considered lucrative by any stretch of the word.
He eventually founded a marketing and public relations business and continued to make appearances around the world. However, there’s no question that had Jesse Owens won four gold medals today, his endorsements alone would certainly run into the tens of millions of dollars.
So there you have it, five Olympic legends whose performances left the world speechless, and the athletes themselves largely fortuneless; try and imagine Usain Bolt racing horses to supplement his income and you’ll know just what I mean when I say these athletes are still waiting to receive their financial due.
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