6 Dark Secrets Of Being An Olympic Athlete Nobody Tells You
It's the Olympics: that time of year when we sit back and watch our finest, most glistening athletes run, jump, and throw their hearts out trying to convince the world that we don't deserve to be the international shorthand for "childhood obesity." However, while you might think that the worst thing that can happen to an Olympic athlete is having to raise the Kardashian kids, it turns out that the job comes with so much depressing baggage that Foxcatcher seems like a slapstick buddy comedy by comparison. What sort of baggage? Well ...
Training Costs Will Leave You (And Your Parents) Broke
You'd think that as compensation for defending their nation's honor at the Olympic Games, athletes would be entitled to, say, their face on a mountain somewhere, or at least enough money to not make a McJob seem like an attractive career prospect. Well, sorry to disappoint, but almost every athlete you're about to watch on TV had to beg, borrow, and bankrupt everyone they love for their chance at stardom.
Unless they're one of the cool kids, of course.
Let's take the situation at home. The U.S. government provides no financial support to its athletes (of the 200+ countries that attend the games, we're one of three to not do so), which places the onus for athlete funding on the U.S. Olympics Committee. As a nonprofit with an estimated annual budget of $170 million, they can only afford to offer stipends and other benefits to a small number of athletes, most of whom will be competing in high-profile, recognizable sports. If you're an athlete who picked a less-marquee sport such as racewalking or dressage (basically horse dancing), then too bad. Don't let the hurdles bang your ass on the way out.
In a just world, this horse would be richer than Michael Jordan.
And it's not like they can rely on sponsorship deals or prize money, either. A recent survey found that only the top five athletes in events such as running, jumping, and discus throw were earning over $15K a year from their activities -- a figure which includes everything from sponsorship deals to prize money to, yes, the aforementioned stipends. To get a gold medal in money, in other words, you have to be at the very top of your game in a sport that people give a shit about all the goddamn time, not just twice a decade.
Every canoe slalom fan in America gave $50.
Oh, and bankrupting their parents. For families willing to support their kid's Olympics dream, it's estimated that it comes with a six-figure price tag when you factor in expenditures like equipment, coaching, travel, and the inevitable counselling sessions after the credit card bill arrives. By the way, all of this is for the prospect of a payoff -- there's no guarantee that their offspring is going romp home with anything other than a venereal disease, never mind the trophies to pay back the national debt of Guam.
You Can Be Accused Of Doping Incredibly Easily
The second-biggest problem with any Olympics (after the athletes accidentally boning themselves to death) is doping. Seriously, alongside the major shitstorm currently raging over Russia's government-sanctioned doping ring, there are so many incidents that the Wikipedia article listing everyone who got caught is twice as long as the one listing every Olympic medalist. Who would have guessed that incentivizing highly-competitive people with promises of lifelong fame would bring out their bad side?
Pictured: the building where Russian anti-dopers go to be "reeducated".
But even if you're not intentionally trying to cheat, it's still disturbingly easy to get "busted" after taking contaminated health supplements, diet medication ... or dick pills. That was the case of sprinter LaShawn Merritt, who accidentally ingested steroids through some over-the-counter sexual enhancement pills that he'd bought from his local convenience store for $6. In a turn of events sitcom writers would call far-fetched, the only way Merritt could clear his name was by awkwardly wheeling out the female 7-11 clerk who sold him the pills. Hey, at least his mother and aunt stepped out of the courtroom before they interrogated him about his dong.
This is why we only trust online pharmacies with batshit insane box art.
However, like many athletes who are able to prove their innocence in these situations, Merritt was still penalized. He was banned from competing for nearly two years. World-record-holding swimmer Jessica Hardy also proved that she only tested positive because of a (most likely useless) nutritional supplement her sponsors gave her, and was still suspended for one year.
So the solution is to simply not take any pills, right? (Or spend more than $6 on them.) Nope. Your body itself can betray you. If a female athlete's body is found to produce too much testosterone, she might have to undergo corrective surgery before she's allowed to compete in women's sports again. Side effects, by the way, include loss of sexual function and goddamn sterility. At least we've got a good handle on how much testosterone is considered too much, right? Nope, we have no idea.
Of course, all of this means squat if the lab charged with analyzing athletes' samples isn't up-to-scratch -- something that we only barely avoided in Rio. If unchecked, this would have potentially allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes to be accused of doping. In that case, they'd have to suspend everyone and get a bunch of dogs, bears, and a sentient buggy to compete -- which actually happened once in the '70s.
A dark time in world history.
The Media Will Screw You Over (If You're A Woman)
More women are joining the Olympics all the time, and in the case of the U.S., bringing home most of the medals (58 versus the men's 45 in London 2012). Despite this, there's a world of difference between the media coverage that male and female events receive -- proving that we still can't seem to get the hang of gender equality even among women who could, if sufficiently provoked, remove John Q. Public's spine like the goddamned Predator.
The average female rugby player could do it just by breathing hard.
This is illustrated plainly in a 2012 study which found that not only do male athletes still get more televised face time, but also that the discrepancy is widening. We can't blame this trend on "boring" sports, either, because women have traditionally done very well in the most popular events. So what the hell is going on, then? To answer that, we only have to look at the type of screen time they do get. The figure is 46.3 percent, but that innocent-looking number is mostly taken from media reports of overtly "feminine" events (that is, ones involving tight swimsuits). Here's how the NBC Olympics website covers women's volleyball ...
We're assuming the site played "Oh Yeah" by Yello on a loop.
... and here's how they cover men's volleyball (or as most people on TV call it, "volleyball").
Not a single taint close-up, if you can believe it.
Yeah. A whopping 97 percent of the coverage women do manage to get is geared around games "for girls" and "for girls' boobs." Most of the commentator chatter tends to focus on the athletes' appearances and failings, rather than their super strength and mind-boggling endurance in sports that would make the rest of us cry like babies. According to a University of Delaware study, when a woman wins at the Olympics, the announcers will talk about how lucky she was -- when a man does, they'll "applaud skill and commitment to the sport" (and lack of cooties).
But this makes sense, when you think about it. Because male athletes get overwhelmingly more time in the spotlight, viewers and reporters have the time to comment on their actual prowess. When they do get to the women, there won't be much time left to talk about stuff other than who's a bitchy diva and who has the best booty on the field. If you're still not sympathetic, look at it this way: Some of those dudes have fine booties too, and this is all dreadfully unfair to them.
The Greeks were much more enlightened in this area.
You're More Political Pawn Than Athlete
So you've bankrupted your family, given yourself several chronic illnesses, and dodged any sort of chemicals for the last half decade, and now it's finally time for you to step up and take your place in hist-- oh, sorry, your country's pulled out of this year's games because of the current political situation. And believe us, there's always a political situation.
As some have noted, there seems to be no prouder tradition associated with the Olympics than the good ol' fashioned boycott. Hell, the first modern games in 1896 were nearly boycotted by France and Germany because they were still pissed at each other over the Franco-Prussian War. We wouldn't even have the Olympic torch for decades, but boycotting was one tradition that couldn't wait to get started.
This guy got so angry at the Olympics in 1984 that he tried to fly away.
It got so bad that at one point, The New York Times commented that the games had devolved "into more of a political competition than an athletic competition no longer seem to justify the time and trouble." It's hard not to argue with that. It seems that those dang SJWs (Sports Justice Warriors) are always trying to boycott the games because they've gotten offended by silly shit like ... apartheid and gay rights? Huh.
The problem is that in geopolitical terms, boycotting the games is a fairly useless bit of grandstanding that only succeeds in torpedoing the lives and dreams of athletes -- like the ones whose careers were aborted when the U.S. pulled out of the 1980 Moscow games. It's one thing when athletes boycott of their own will, as several have done with Rio 2016. When Jimmy Carter makes that decision for you, however, it means you've wasted your time, energy, and money, and now have to go back to four more years of no one knowing who you are.
Kinda like Jimmy Carter.
And finally, there's the small fact that boycotting goes against everything that the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, envisaged them to be: an apolitical event where nations competed in good spirits and channeled out of the rivalries and aggression that might have otherwise gone into dropping bombs on each other. We don't know if you've noticed, but ... that'd be a good thing right now, you guys. That, or let's all have a giant orgy.
Your Health Will Suffer In Myriad Ways
Being an Olympic athlete is a shortcut to a life wrought with sickness and injury. From good ol' asthma to concussions and even poor dental hygiene, every competitor is playing a dangerous game no one can see while the cameras are rolling.
The shitty teeth thing is a mystery to everyone.
It's more than the "dangerous" sports that put the players at risk for severe head injuries. Believe it or not, a large number of concussions occur in synchronized swimming, where getting kicked in the head is a common occurrence -- you have a 50/50 shot of ending up in the hospital when engaging in that deceptively graceful competition.
"Yay, we won! We don't know what our names are!"
The truth is, every single sport in the Olympic is a hundred times more dangerous and difficult than most of us can begin to imagine. The danger isn't limited to team or contact sports, either. Sometimes, the most dangerous obstacle for a competitor is their own brain. Archers and shooters are particularly susceptible to this, so much so that we've got a special name for it: target panic. One moment you're making sure your form is correct, lining up a beautiful shot, and suddenly your fine motor skills go bye-bye. Some release the bow as soon as they see the target, while others freeze and can't shoot at all. (We move for this phenomenon to be renamed "Sgt. Al Powell syndrome.")
He's been standing there like this since Beijing 2008.
The shot misses (if you can even make it), your excruciatingly hard work comes to nothing, and you end up going home empty-handed. Target panic is so deeply dreaded that it's become the "Macbeth" of the target sport world. You don't talk about it. You don't think about it on the playing field. You do your best to pretend it doesn't exist. And your coach is sworn to secrecy if it happens to you. And make no mistake: It probably will. Some 90 percent of target-sport athletes experience target panic at least once, and many find themselves unable to try again for the rest of their lives.
While this may sound like a textbook psychological breakdown, recent studies suggest that it is in fact a neurological disorder brought on by extreme repetitive motion -- meaning you can't ward it away with positive thoughts. So if you happen to be an archer and had never heard about this before, hey, you're welcome.
A Terrible Retirement Awaits You
One day, you wake up, the games are over, and -- unless you want to go through all of this again despite your doctor's sobbing, hysterical pleas -- retirement is calling. It's time to kick back and live out the rest of your days in well-earned ease, basking in the gratitude of your nation.
Well, good luck with that.
Let's say there's a reason this search turns up over 2,000 results.
Like Batman before you, you've been informed that you've got no cartilage remaining in your joints and you'll spend the rest of your days hobbling from physical therapy to your life counselor's office and back. You're still a chiseled, gleaming superhero in a sea of ordinary slobs, but unless you've got Bruce Wayne's trust fund (and robot leg braces) to carry you gently into the night, you're in for a singularly shitty time.
"Athletes die twice" is an adage among experts for a reason. By all accounts, it's incredibly hard to go from a life as a superhuman to life as ... well, us. Leaving aside the psychological Jenga tower of suddenly and completely altering the way you've lived your life, simply getting a decent job is a hero's trial. There are only a limited number of career paths that accomplished athletes can walk into, because they've spent the last several years speed-skating into glorious immortality for their countries, not expanding their education or job market experience. Only a few end up rich and/or talking nonsense on TV -- the rest are thrown into new careers for which they'll probably have little to no qualifications.
"How about instead of filling that monthly report, I throw some javelins real far? No? Are you sure?"
To combat this, the U.S. Olympic Committee offers transition assistance programs for wayward athletes. Those who have retired usually feel that it was all worth it, but it behooves us all to remember that the guy or gal on our Wheaties box is probably going to end up struggling to make ends meet in only a few short years. Enjoy the show, everyone!
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