Rulon Gardner is famous for his larger-than-life personality and three memorable events:
- His gold-medal win over Alexander Karelin in 2000 was one of the greatest Olympic upsets of all time
- He had a toe amputated in 2002 after spending a February night stranded in the Wyoming mountains
- At the end of his bronze-medal match in 2004, Garder sat down on the mat, removed his shoes, and left them there
Peter Richmond did a piece in GQ about Gardner and his night in the wilderness, titled "Rulon Gardner Wants a Third Helping." It's also in Best American Sports Writing 2003.
Olympic heavyweight wrestling champion Rulon Gardner is angry.
Gardner retired in very public fashion by leaving his shoes on the mat an the end of his bronze medal match in 2004. He's angry because he won't be receiving his training allowance or his health insurance from the USOC. As a matter of policy, retired athletes are not eligible for these benefits, which are intended to support Olympic hopefuls.
This little story has a lot of interesting facets. When you look beneath the surface, there's a whole bunch of wrong going on here.
First of all, Gardner is wrong to feel entitled to his handout from the USOC:
Ten years I gave to the sport. I won a bronze medal, walked away and then, in March, I lost my insurance and they pulled my $2,000 in annual grant money. My contract wasn't up until July. I had viewed that money like severance pay, something to help me move on. But for me, it was like a slap in the face.
Well, that money isn't severance pay, Rulon. It's a training allowance for Olympic hopefuls. You aren't one any more. I know, it seems like a victimless crime — so what if a former Olympian steals a couple of thousand dollars as a "pension," and some health insurance? But the fact is, that's money that could be — should be — helping somebody else. Gardner's rationalization reminds me of Employment Insurance cheats who stay on the dole even while they're working, because they feel they "deserve" it.
That's a little harsh, and I should apologize. Because Rulon Garder is not going to get his dole, and that's fundamentally a result of doing the right thing. And as is too often the case, he's being punished for it. What would have happened if he had not come clean about his retirement last summer? Let's go back to our story:
At least one of Gardner's Olympic teammates, Cael Sanderson, has continued receiving his benefits. Although Sanderson, now an assistant coach at Iowa State, hasn't wrestled since Athens, he also hasn't said whether he will retire or try to make the team again for the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Now, I don't know if Cael Sanderson is retired or not, and maybe he fully intends to continue his competitive career. But I think I can read between the lines here. It sure sounds like everybody knows that Sanderson is finished with wrestling, but because he hasn't said so, officials can look the other way while he continues to receive his benefits. When the term of his contract is over in July, he'll quietly slip into "officlal" retirement. If Gardner had been as deceitful, he would be enjoying his health insurance right now. Here's USA Wrestling director Mitch Hull saying the same thing, although not in so many words:
I have to answer to my board. And they'll ask me, 'Well, did he retire? What does the policy say?' The policy says he's not eligible for the money. Hey, those were pretty expensive shoes he left on the mat. They cost him $2,000, unfortunately.
In other words, if Hull could plausibly deny that Gardner had retired — if he just hadn't left those shoes on that mat — then it wouldn't have ended this way.
So the leaders of USA Wrestling are doing a wrong here, too. Athletes who hide their intention to retire are stealing support from other athletes, and officials who knowingly allow it to happen are accomplices to the crime. As it stands, USA Wrestling is sending a clear message to their athletes, and the message is: If you're planning to retire, please don't tell us about it. But that's not fair to the rest of the national team, since a "secretly retired" athlete is taking one of a finite number of spots on that team, and all of the resources that go along with it.
The USOC, as a funding agency, doesn't really have the ability or the knowledge to monitor all of the athletes in every sport, and they rely on the national governing bodies (NGBs) to enforce their policies. But that's not to say that the USOC is blameless here. A policy that encourages athletes to lie about their future plans is a bad policy. And a bad policy that you don't intend to follow is even worse.
There's a lot that's bad in this little story, where there could be good. It isn't that hard to see the solution. Instead of punishing athletes who do are honest, and rewarding those who lie, let's switch it up. The USOC could offer extended funding, or some other support, to retired athletes, to help encourage them to tell the truth about their future plans. And for those cases where encouragement won't be enough, the USOC needs to make sure that the NGBs have enforcement guidelines in place. One way to accomplish this is to put offseason checkpoints (e.g. fitness requirements, medical checkups, training program monitoring) in place. The message should be: If you're planning to retire, tell us about it, so we can help; and if you don't tell us, we're going to find out anyway.
Rulon Gardner as a spokesman for the Olympic movement would be good for the USOC, and for USA Wrestling. Some transitional support would be good for Rulon Gardner. Eliminating the "secretly retired" athlete would be good for younger athletes on the way up. The way things stand right now, we have none of these things.