At this year’s Tokyo Olympics, 339 medals will be awarded — the culmination of the athletes’ life’s work. Yet winning gold doesn’t necessarily guarantee a life of luxury.
After Greg Louganis captured double Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984 — a feat he repeated four years later in Seoul — he was acclaimed as possibly the greatest diver in history.
But “financial woes,” as he wrote in a Vox essay, left the champion facing foreclosure on his Malibu home. By 2012 things were so dire, he turned to Ingrid O’Neil.
She runs an eponymous auction house in Corona del Mar, Calif., specializing in Olympic memorabilia. Several years ago, Louganis’ partner called her, explaining that the diver wanted to sell some of his medals. “He wanted $100,000 for each medal,” she said. “I told him I didn’t think I could sell them for that amount. Nowadays, though, I think it would be possible.”
Louganis managed to sell his house rather than give up his gold, but it’s still shocking. While there are players’ unions for leagues such as the NFL and the NBA, it’s harder for most Olympic athletes once their competitive careers are over. Often, the medals they’ve won represent one of the few assets they can realize in their retirement.
In 1980, Mark Wells and Mark Pavelich were part of the legendary USA hockey team that defeated the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice” game in Lake Placid, NY.
Meanwhile, Wells had been drafted by the NHL Montreal Canadiens in the late 1970s, but even after Olympic gold he failed to make it from the farm team to the big leagues. He was traded to the Detroit Red Wings but refused the assignment, signed with the New York Rangers, then bounced around the minor leagues. When he retired in 1982 at age 25, he had never played an NHL game.
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From there, the descent from glory was great: He became a restaurant manager in his home state of Michigan. Wells was injured while unloading crates and had to undergo an 11-hour surgery — only for doctors to discover that he had a rare degenerative spinal disease. Bedridden, unable to work and depressed, the former center finally had to sell his gold medal to a private collector for $40,000. (Adding insult to injury, the collector then sold it at auction for $310,700.)
“It killed me to sell the medal . . . [but] I was going to lose my home. I needed to sell it to have surgery and to live,” Wells said in 2010. “I had no choice.”
He was reportedly last known to have moved from Michigan to Florida. Sadder still is the story of his Olympic teammate Mark Pavelich, the man who assisted on Mike Eruzione’s winning goal against the Soviet Union.
Unlike Wells, Pavelich did enjoy a career in the NHL, playing for the Rangers, the Minnesota North Stars and the San Jose Sharks.
But when his wife, Kara, died in a 2012 fall from a balcony at their home in Lutsen, Minn., things took a dark turn for Pavelich and he had to sell his gold medal at auction two years later. Money could help only so much, though. In 2019 he was arrested for assaulting a neighbor but found unfit to face trial, on account of his mental health.
The sport that won Pavelich gold may be to blame for his downfall. His family suspects Pavelich was suffering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the result of countless blows to the head he had taken during his career.
In March 2021, while living at a treatment center in Minnesota, the Olympian took his own life. He was 63.
“The market is strong for Olympic medals when they come up for sale but it depends on a number of factors, such as the event,” said John Millensted, head of the Coins & Medals department at Bonhams auction house. “That said, it’s not often you get living athletes selling their medals. It tends to be the next of kin after the original recipient has passed away.”
Sometimes, even athletes from a high-profile sport such as basketball end up auctioning their gold medals — as has been the case with former Team USA players Vin Baker (Sydney 2000), Walter Davis (Montreal 1976) and Jerry Lucas (Rome 1960).
“It’s unusual for basketball players to do it, but you can see why [some] sell them,” said Robert Raiola, director of Sports & Entertainment Group at accounting firm PKF O’Connor Davies. “The issue is, they don’t have a regular income and they spend so much time working on their craft that it’s almost inevitable that some struggle when their competing days come to an end.”
(The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee [USOPC] pays athletes $37,500 for winning gold, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze.)
Olympians do occasionally unload their medals in the name of charity: US swimming champion Anthony Ervin auctioned his gold, from the 2000 Sydney games, in 2004 and donated the $17,101 to India tsunami victims.
But, as O’Neil notes, when a living athlete does sell, the reasons tend to be tragic. “I remember one who sold his silver medal in swimming. He said he trained for years to win gold, and he was so disappointed with silver that he just didn’t want to look at it anymore,” she explained.
But even a medal steeped in Olympic history doesn’t guarantee a sale. Take Tommie Smith’s 200m gold from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he obliterated the world record. Famously, Smith took to the podium alongside his bronze-winning teammate John Carlos and they raised their fists in a black-power salute — one of the most iconic, politically charged moments in sports.
Smith has tried several times to sell his gold to raise money for his program that helps inner-city children. But bids have never matched his valuation of between $250,000 and $500,000.
The idea that Olympians resort to selling their medals presents a real problem for the governing bodies. Current athletes can access a range of support, including grants, tuition assistance and health insurance. Those benefits don’t extend to retirees.
The USOPC’s Athlete Career and Education program (ACE) is designed to prepare elite athletes for transition into a new life, including advice on careers, finance and self-promotion. Similarly, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) runs its own Athlete Career Program to help manage life shifts.
Louganis says even more help is necessary. “Counseling in mental health and financial guidance is needed for athletes in transition out of elite sports,” he told The Post. “Many athletes could be dealing with PTSD.”
The programs don’t prepare athletes for what happens when — through mismanagement or never having been able to make enough money to survive — they have to sell their prize.
“[The medal] has held a special place in my heart since February of 1980,” hockey player Wells wrote in a letter that accompanied his auction. “When I decided recently to offer it out . . . I have slept with this medal for the past two weeks now in my home. I hope you will cherish this medal as I have.”