Past Olympic champions: where are they now?

Gold medals no guarantee of easy life

Yiping Yang By Yiping Yang

It’s the end of London 2012. Last chance to cheer for the Olympic champions. And maybe time to think how they’re going to fare after the games are over.

For some athletes, it’s the beginning of a lucrative second career, but for most retirement means back to a humdrum life. It may be a relief not to train non-stop, but as Reuters notes, studies show that retired athletes are more prone to suffer depression, eating disorders and suicide compared to other people.

What happens to the athletes after the games are over has been a hot topic on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, Sina Weibo. As one blogger Li Chengpeng put it, they are “the nobodies that gave everything and received nothing in return.” Photographs of former sports superstars have been making the rounds on social media in China. They make for disturbing viewing.

Huang Chengyi, for example, was once a famous professional basketball player who trained with Yao Ming. The 7’1″ former sportsman now lives his life in a wheelchair after an operation failed to repair his sports injuries. Huang and his mother now live in a workers’ dormitory slated for demolition in Beijing.

Huang Chengyi and his mother at Mary’s Orthopedic Hospital on March 17, 2012 in Beijing, China. (www.cfp.cn)

Liu Fei won the three person event at the 1998 Acrobatic Gymnastics World Championship. Now she regrets she ever was an athlete. “The flowers, the applause, the bright flags already feel so far away,” Liu said. “On the medal podium, it never occurred to me that the hardship would start when I retired. I have nowhere to live, no job, no income.”

For more poignant stories of the men and women who were once China’s sports heroes check out Tea Leaf Nation’s picture gallery.

Until Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda won the men’s marathon on the sixteenth and last day of the Olympics in London, Uganda had only one gold medalist in its history, hurdler John Akii-bua.

Akii-bua won the 400-meter hurdle in the 1972 Munich Olympics and was subsequently heralded as one of the world’s 100 best athletes of all time.

However, when John died in 1997 he left his 11 children in poverty. Uganda has no policy of rewarding its Olympic medalists.

“We have never enjoyed life as people would expect of a hero’s family,” says daughter Maureen Akii-bua. “Even when Dad was alive he could not afford to pay school fees for all of us…and, as a result, several dropped out of school and got married.”

Ryan Lochte of the U.S. holds his bronze medal during the men’s 200m backstroke victory ceremony during the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre, August 2, 2012. (Reuters)

Some American champions are facing money problems even before their retirement. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte may have to use his fame to make money quickly since his parents are, allegedly, facing foreclosure. The mother of Gabby Douglas, the first African-American woman to win a gold in gymnastics, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year in Virginia. Luckily, the 16-year-old world champion is expected to earn millions of dollars from endorsements and other deals.