Olympic Confessions: 4 Former Olympians Tell All
This story first appeared in the August 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
To hear these star U.S. Olympians tell it, there is no greater glory than leading their country to victory on a global stage. And this foursome would know, with 11 medals between them, nine of them gold. But there are also hidden -- and sometimes surprising -- pitfalls to competing at the highest level. Though they come from different sports, each athlete relates to the struggles of post-Olympics life -- from coping with the agony of defeat to waiting for the endorsement deals that never come and working to stay in shape long after the Olympics torch has been extinguished. Gathered at the downtown Los Angeles Athletic Club on July 11, these four athletes -- Sugar Ray Leonard, 56; Greg Louganis, 52; Cobi Jones, 42; and Janet Evans, 40 -- reveal their favorite Olympics memories, how they adjusted to life after the Games and how they keep their gold medals clean.
The Hollywood Reporter: What's your most memorable moment from the Olympics?
Greg Louganis: The most memorable moment, for everybody else and myself, was when I hit my head on the springboard at the 3-meter springboard prelims in 1988. I remember telling my coach, "Oh my God, that's all anybody's going to remember." People still to this day will ask me, "How's your head?" (Laughter.) But for me, it was not so much hitting my head; it was the next dive, coming back. That was actually the highest scoring dive at the Games. To come back after hitting my head and then doing my reverse 1-1/2-to-3-1/2 twist -- that was memorable.
THR: How did you mentally prepare yourself to dive again after the accident?
Louganis: It was really terrifying because I had been diagnosed HIV positive six months earlier. I had my coach, Ron O'Brien, smuggle my HIV meds into [South Korea] because had anyone known my HIV status at that time, I wouldn't have been allowed in the country. It was a concern as to who would come into contact with my blood. I was paralyzed by fear. I didn't know who I could trust. And I did the only thing I knew to do, which is get back up on that board, because that's what I was trained to do.
Sugar Ray Leonoard: Greg, when you hit your head and we saw the blood it felt like, "Oh, it's over," but you came back like a fighter, man. I admire that.
Louganis: I was just taking after you! (Laughter.)
Leonard: That special moment for me was in 1976, standing on the podium, because I had beaten Cuba for the gold medal. It was bittersweet, because I was so happy that I won, but a part of me said, "Well, this is it." I had no plans of turning professional. My mother and father were sitting in the audience, and my dad was really sick. He didn't tell anyone. But that moment -- ah, nothing tops that. Someone can say, "I was world champion," but very few people can say, "I was an Olympic gold medal winner." That's special. Big time.
Janet Evans: I think that's what kind of bonds us as Olympians. My first Games were in 1988 when I was barely 17. But my memorable moment was when I was asked to run the torch at the Atlanta Opening Ceremony in '96. I was worried about it. I thought my legs would get tired! I ran up these big long ramps, and Muhammad Ali was standing there. To watch him light the torch and hear the crowd … it's very hard to describe, but for me it transcended the Olympics. It transcended winning and made me realize the Olympics move people on a much larger scale.
Cobi Jones: I never expected to get into the Olympics -- as a soccer player or as anything else! For me, it was that Opening Ceremony in Barcelona. We were all walking through with the American team. And who do they push right in behind us? Charles Barkley … the whole Dream Team! That's when it kind of hit me: We're competing to be the best. It's the cool kids' camp.
THR: Bruce Jenner was once quoted after his Olympics heyday that he felt "extremely satisfied but also devastated by the finality of it all" when the Games were over. To what degree was this your experience?
Louganis: When I was 16, [gold medal-winning Olympics diver] Pat McCormick came to me and she said, "Watch out for the post-Olympic blues." Mine were pretty severe in 1976. I went there to win and prevent [Italian] Klaus Dibiasi from breaking my then-coach, Dr. Sammy Lee's record. I was the young kid who was going to prevent [Dibiasi] from winning his third Olympic gold medal. And when I failed at that, it was public humiliation on the world stage. When I came back, I was so confused. I was still in high school and didn't understand that all these kids who used to make fun of me suddenly wanted to be my friend. But I felt like a failure. And I did try to commit suicide after that because I thought that the world would be better off without me. I've suffered from depression periodically, and my parents didn't quite know what to do.
Jones: What got you through that period?
Louganis: I was like, "OK, you know what? Rather than spend energy trying to off yourself, why don't you try to figure out why you're here?" So I put my energy into my purpose. That's why it's so important to me, the mentoring for USA Diving and reaching out to kids and talking about anti-bullying. That's what I'm very passionate about.
Evans: Because we're Olympians, we make it look easy; we're always supposed to win. I struggled with not winning, which is why that moment in '96 was so important. In 1992, I was supposed to win a race and I got second. But in my world, I lost. Our country likes to win. If you don't win, there's something wrong with you! Every Olympian I know struggles with that, but no one knows. It's hard. There are a lot of bumps in the road, but that -- I think that's part of being an athlete as well.
Leonard: I get home from the Montreal Games, and I'm anticipating to be really, really famous, but that didn't take place as far as endorsements. Corporate America at that time [wasn't putting] an African American on a Wheaties box, especially a boxer, of all people. So I was waiting by the phone and at the mailbox and nothing came through. My dad, who had spinal meningitis and tuberculosis, went into a coma. We have no money. I'm freaking out. One of my mentors, [boxing trainer] Janks Morton said, "Turn pro, you make a lot of money." I had no other alternative. Within a year, my dad regained his health and I say to myself, "This is not a bad job." So I kept going.
Louganis: For you, it was the color of your skin. For me, it was rumors of my sexuality, which were enough to keep corporate America away. In 1984, we had a lot of gold medalists. But who do you remember? Mary Lou Retton. That's it. That's what I'm most concerned about now -- the aftercare. What happens after the limelight?
Jones: Just because you do well in the Olympics does not mean you're making a lot of money. It is a lot of waiting by the phone. And if it doesn't happen, you're just like, "OK, what's my next step?" And you're out there by yourself. I think everything that Greg is doing to help people transition is so important.
Evans: There was an article in Forbes that said the majority of Olympians have hardships -- it was a pretty significant percentage that are under the poverty line. They spend seven to 10 years training and lose that valuable time in the corporate world, getting barely any kind of money from sponsorships or the Olympic Committee. And it's a very rare few that make a significant fortune based on the Olympics. We all think, "Oh, you win a gold medal and you're going to be set for life." And that is just not true.
Leonard: Except if you're Bruce Jenner, who pisses me off. (Laughter.) I think it's the hair thing. But again, I waited by the phone, and being a boxer, my whole thing is mano-a-mano. Being tough. And it takes you through a period because you don't want to appear to be weak. And at that time, corporate America did not see you as a valuable commodity. And it was tough because everyone assumed that I struck it rich right away.
THR: What are some of the more bizarre endorsement deals you were offered?
Leonard: One of the craziest, more outlandish offers was for me to be a black Superman, flying around the ghetto.
THR: Who offered this to you?
Leonard: Some small independent company. I passed on that.
Evans: I gave a speech once at a corporate event, at a resort in Mexico. Afterward, the CEO came up to me and said, "You did a great job. But you know, last year we had Mary Lou Retton here. And during her speech she did a flip onstage. You should think about integrating swimming into your speech." I was like, "Really? Like, take the guests down to the resort pool and swim a couple laps?"
THR: Was there a moment when you asked for help in navigating your post-Olympics financial affairs?
Jones: It was really a situation for me where I depended on my parents. My dad was a professor, a Ph.D. in chemistry, and my mom was a teacher. So for them, it was, go back to school, finish up at UCLA and see what happens. And that's when I got the call, to go with the national team for the World Cup and start working toward that -- to try to start making it a career.
Louganis: After the '84 games, I was signed with Stan Kamen at William Morris. He brought Kevin Costner and myself in at the same time. But then he got sick and passed away. After that, I couldn't get anybody's attention over there. They were telling me, "Oh, you need a manager." So I was turning everything over to people and not learning. Now, years later, I'm taking it over and realizing, you know what? It's not magic. I can do this. I can return the phone calls. I know what's right and what's not.
Leonard: I've received a ton of written proposals on napkins and matchbooks and things of that nature. And I, too, relied upon people to bring the goods to me. But I'm 56 now. I kind of do it myself. I have a great team, but I'm involved in my business. And if I could tell the young athletes anything, it is to be involved. No matter how young you are, you can always learn something that's going to benefit you down the road.
THR: What's the most meaningful feedback you've ever gotten about your Olympics achievements?
Leonard: I've traveled the world, and it's wonderful when people say, "My father loved you, man." That's a wonderful thing when someone years later -- three decades later -- has that same appreciation and respect.
Louganis: I'm most proud of writing [memoir] Breaking the Surface because on my book tour, I had people saying, "You've saved my life." That they were either in an abusive relationship or were diagnosed with HIV and were afraid that life was over or that they'd never have a relationship or find love. Diving and the Olympics gave me a platform to have a voice, and I've been learning to use that voice for the greater good.
Evans: After my first Olympics, I came home kind of like, "I'm famous!" But my mom's like, "You still have your chores." My parents taught me, you have a platform now and you have to use your gold medals. The glory fades, but you have to use those medals to inspire others. Greg and I were at an event the other day, and a certain Olympian there said, "Well, I never pull out my gold medals because I don't want them to get ruined." And a couple of the other Olympians and I were like, "Mine's dirty!" But so what? Your medal's not very pretty? It shouldn't be!
Louganis: I gave away one of my medals. Ryan White, who was my buddy, contracted HIV through hemophilia. He was my inspiration. So I gave that medal to Jeanne White, his mother.
Evans: Yeah, and that's what they're for. They're for sharing. The most touching thing for me as a woman is to see the changes we've made even since '88 when I went to my first Olympics, and the opportunities that exist now for women in sports. To meet people who say, "You inspired me to play soccer with the boys."
Leonard: So your gold medal's dirty? (Laughter.)
Evans: It's dented, yeah.
Leonard: Mine is too, and it's kind of a dark shade. How do you clean it?
Louganis: I don't know!
Evans: You can get your ribbon dry-cleaned, I guess.
Leonard: No, it's a little tarnished. It's like, "God, what is this?"
Evans: Take it to a jeweler!
Leonard: No, no. I've tried that. They charge you an arm and a leg.