You wouldn’t know it with all of the hype surrounding the Olympics right now, but there are things more important than winning a gold medal. Just ask these athletes, who had good reason to sell their hard-earned precious metal.
1. Mark Wells, U.S.
You might wonder how an Olympic athlete could part with any gold medal, let alone one attached to such a historic and emotional victory. Wells didn’t part with it lightly: he sold it to help pay for medical treatments related to a rare genetic disease that damaged his spinal cord. He sold the medal to a private collector, who in turn sold it through an auction house for $310,700 in 2010. This is the heartbreaking note that accompanied the medal:
"The gold medal symbolizes my personal accomplishments and our team's accomplishments being reached. As one of only 20 players to receive this gold medal, it has held a special place in my heart since February of 1980. When I decided recently to offer it out . . . I also decided until the day I give it up, it will be worn. Therefore, 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."
2. Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine
The Atlanta Games marked the first year Ukraine went to the Olympics as an independent country, so the gold medal that the Steel Hammer picked up was pretty special. To Klitschko, though, helping Ukrainian children get involved in sports is even more important. He auctioned off his prize earlier this year, earning $1 million for the Klitschko Brothers Foundation that helps fund children's sports camps and facilities. The bidder? A mysterious benefactor who immediately returned the medal to the man who earned it.
3. Anthony Ervin, U.S.
Anthony Ervin won the gold in the 50m freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite this success, he retired from the sport in 2003 at the age of 22, saying that he "needed to kind of figure out my own life … unhindered, unfettered from the discipline of being a competitive, professional swimmer.” He put his gold medal on eBay in 2004, donating the $17,101 it earned to victims of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Ervin made an appearance in the 50m in 2012, but failed to medal.
4. Otylia Jedrzejczak, Poland
Before she even qualified for the Athens Olympics 10 years ago, Jedrzejczak declared that any gold medals she won would be donated to charity. When she found herself at the top of the winner's stand not long after, she made good on the promise. Her medal from the 200m butterfly went for more than $80,000 and benefited a Polish charity that helps kids with leukemia. "I don't need the medal to remember," she said. "I know I'm the Olympic champion. That's in my heart."
And One Who Tried To: Tommie Smith, U.S.
1968 Track & Field
Even if you don't know the name Tommie Smith, you've seen him: he was one of two American men who silently raised a gloved fist in the Black Power salute at the 200m dash victory ceremony. Despite the medal's significance, he put it on the auction block. Twice.
In 2000, Smith and his wife, Delois Jordan-Smith, started TommieSmith.com, the Web site featuring an auction of the athlete's memorabilia. The asking price at the time was $500,000, although Smith admitted the odds of someone ponying up the cash were probably ''smaller than a mustard seed.''
He was right to be skeptical. Ten years later, Smith re-launched the auction, this time starting the bidding at $250,000. Many speculated that Smith needed the money to live, but David Steele, the co-writer of Smith’s 2007 autobiography, didn’t think so. “I worry with this news getting out now that everyone is going to get that impression. Unless something has changed in the last year, I don’t think it’s the case.”
“I know he wants to fund a youth initiative and a good portion of the money off the sale would go toward that,” said Gary J. Zimet, a representative from Moments in Time auction house. Smith himself has remained silent on the topic.
The auction soon fell out of the news cycle and there are no reports of anyone offering even that discounted price. That said, the medal has disappeared off TommieSmith.com but if you’re in the market for an Olympic medal of your own (and have a spare quarter of a mil), drop him a line, you might still be in luck.