The Price of Gold

Gabby Douglas, Ryan Lochte: Why Families of America’s Olympics Athletes Are Broke

Years of spending huge sums to prepare their kids to become Olympic heroes leaves many U.S. families on the brink of financial disaster. Kevin Fallon reports.

AP Photo (2)

Gabby Douglas is America’s newest sweetheart. She’s also its newest millionaire. Her mother, however, is broke.

The 16-year-old gymnast, who became the first black gymnast to win the all-around competition last week in London, stands to make between $1 million and $3 million a year in endorsements, and has already agreed to plaster her infectious smile on the Kellogg’s corn flakes box. Douglas’s forthcoming gold-medal payday makes a new revelation about her family all the more shocking.

Natalie Hawkins, Douglas’s mother, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year in Virginia, court documents show. The Chapter 13 filing reveals roughly $80,000 in debts, and will allow her to reorganize her finances to pay down the total over several years. Hawkins, who went on long-term medical disability in 2009, reported a six-month stretch in which the single mother of four had little to no income.

The news comes the day after TMZ broke the story that Ryan Lochte’s parents are facing foreclosure on their Florida home. CitiMortgage is suing the Lochtes, claiming that they stopped making mortgage payments in February 2011. As with Douglas, Lochte, who won five medals in London, is primed for a slew of endorsement deals that couldn’t be better timed for his family.

Both athletes are—at this moment, at least—national heroes and beacons of American patriotism. But the financial strain their years of training put on their families indicates that investing in a future Olympian may not always be a financially sound decision. How did these families get so broke?

Parents of gymnasts, for one, can expect to fork over upward of $1,000 a month to training facilities to get their child in Olympic shape. Travel costs force that total to skyrocket. Leotards and warm-up suits can run $300 to $500 for a complete set. There are entry fees for each meet and competition. When a gymnast is chosen for the U.S. national team and begins traveling internationally, USA Gymnastics begins picking up the cost of training and travel for the gymnast and his or her coach, but any family member who jet-sets with them does so on his or her own dime.

Of course, only gymnasts training at what’s called the “elite” level rack up that kind of bill. Then again, the most promising athletes begin training at that level when they’re 12 or 13 years old, says Karla Grimes, the general manager at the Gage Center training facility in Missouri. That means six years, at least, of 30-hour gym days and, at Gage, $600-a-month training costs.

Eye-popping expenses are par for the course for nearly every Olympic sport. Membership costs at an elite swim club can run $1,500 to $3,000 annually, says Tom Himes, who coached a young Michael Phelps at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Equipment can cost $500 each year. Those slick Speedo Fastskin3 swim trunks Phelps wears? They retail for $395.

For families, there’s the cost of travel and tickets to the events. Ahead of the London Games, Eddie Adams, father of Olympic swimmer Camille Adams, predicted, “It's probably going to be around $15,000 to $20,000 for me, my ex-wife, Camille's twin, my sister, and my sister-in-law to go.” And let’s not forget the grocery bill for those rumored 12,000-calorie, Olympic-size feasts.

Even the more obscure sports—the ones whose stars won’t end up on a corn flakes box or the cover of Vogue—can be prohibitively costly. The annual price of training for Maya Lawrence, an Olympic fencer, is estimated to be $20,000. “It did affect my parents,” she says. “Once I decided I wanted to go to competitions, they really supported me.” Teodor Gheorghe, COO of USA Table Tennis, estimates that top-level players shell out $15,000 for each of the six to eight years it takes to perfect their games; a good paddle alone costs $300.

And with athletes devoting essentially their whole lives to training, there’s typically no room for side jobs or normal careers. While some competitors snag sponsorship deals to offset the lack of steady income, others, like weightlifter Sarah Robles, barely scrape by. The 23-year-old first-time Olympian lived on just $400 a month—her stipend from U.S.A. weightlifting—as she trained full-time for the London Games.

All of that may seem worth it for a shot at the medal stand; in addition to high-profile endorsement opportunities, a gold medal comes with a $25,000 cash prize. Each member of the “Fab Five” gymnastics team that took home the gold medal in London will make a base salary of $100,000 for participation in the 40-city Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions that will run from September to November.

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But not every American athlete enduring the outsize cost of Olympic training actually makes to it the Games. The Gage Center, for example, trained gymnast Sarah Finnegan, who went to London as an alternate for the 2012 U.S. team, as well as Courtney McCool and Terin Humphrey, who were on the 2008 Olympic team. But Grimes estimates that there are roughly 20 girls at Gage training at elite levels, and writing those accompanying checks. For most of them, the Olympics aren’t even in the realm of possibility. So what’s the motivation?

“If there’s no gold medal, there’s a college scholarship,” says Grimes. “There’s some monetary value there.” It makes the financial struggles during those years of training worth it. “I liken it to paying for college early.”

Take the case of Bridget Sloan, who was a member of the silver-medal U.S. women’s gymnastics team in 2008, when she was 16. She was 10 when she started the elite program, with the initial goal of being a college—not an Olympic—athlete. “I figured if I kept with the elite program, I would get an elite scholarship,” she says. It wasn’t until five years later, when she made her first world team, that a trip to the Beijing Games even emerged as a possibility. Still, following her 2008 Olympic journey, Sloan, unlike teammates Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, rejected endorsement deals and retained her amateur status in order to retain NCAA eligibility. She was only a sophomore in high school at the time, and still had dreams of competing in college.

Sloan is heading to the University of Florida as a freshman in the fall, after having taken a year off to train for the 2012 Olympic trials. (She injured herself just prior to the competition.) She received a full scholarship, proof she says, that the years of expensive training were worth it. “I hope [other] families realize that and don’t think they wasted money on leotards and scrunchies.”

The burden placed on American athletes, whose families must foot the bill themselves for more than a decade of expensive training, is in stark contrast to that of the world’s other Olympic powerhouse. China, the only country topping the U.S. in the medal count, boasts a government-backed national sports program, churning out gold medalists with dizzying success over the past two decades—all on the government’s dime.

As the financial struggles of the Lochte and Douglas clans make headlines, one can’t help but wonder if the U.S. should follow suit and pony up the cash for the training of its own Olympic stars. But there’s the questionable zeal with which China trains its athletes—taking them away from their homes at a young age and placing them in training facilities for arduous daily workouts—which makes the idea much less appealing.

Take the case of diver Wu Minxia, who won gold for China in the 3m synchronized springboard event. Her post-victory euphoria was promptly wrecked when her parents finally revealed to her that her grandparents died the year before and her mother battled—and defeated—breast cancer. “It was essential to her this white lie,” Wu’s father told the Shanghai Morning Post, explaining that he didn’t want the bad news to derail his daughter’s diving career. Is there a possibility that a U.S. government-backed sports program could foster the same, possibly abusive excess?

While most sports’ national organizations cover the training and travel costs for an athlete once they make the national team, some say that’s not enough. NBA star and former Team USA member Dwyane Wade caused a stir last spring when he suggested that athletes (specifically, NBA players) should be paid to participate in the Olympics. Such a practice would be more valuable to athletes like Sarah Robles than a multimillion-dollar NBA supernova like Wade. For those struggling Olympians, a substantial paycheck would be a godsend.

But it’s unlikely ever to happen. National organizations are already struggling to support their athletes. As the economy falters, costs of competition rise and sponsorships dwindle. Many sports are bleeding money, and it’s affecting their Olympic presence. U.S. Ski and Snowboard was forced to institute pay cuts across the board for its staff, and introduce layoffs just prior to the 2010 Olympics. It considered requiring its athletes to pay more of their expenses. The U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton organization found itself tightening its belt and sending only one men’s bobsled team, instead of two, to European competitions that year as well.

As the startling news of the Douglas and Lochte family financial woes stun sports fans, the idea of paying Olympic athletes—or at least giving some sort of monetary respite to their families—is a nice one, but it’s not plausible. Besides, says Mike Lopresti at USA Today, what these athletes and their families are getting from the Olympic experience is already immeasurable compensation.

“The Olympics are where a moment on the medal stand, representing 300 million people, is beyond price,” he says. “Opportunity is the treasure that is offered at the Olympics. The chance to hold up a championship, not to a happy owner or satisfied season-ticket base, but a country. The chance to lean over and have someone slip a gold medal over your head. For many it will be the most cherished day of their sporting lives. That's not enough for someone? Then why be there?”