Most athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics have one goal in mind: to bring home the gold. But for a handful of past Olympians, there are things more important than winning—and keeping—a medal. Just ask these athletes, who had good reason to sell their hard-earned precious metal.
1. Mark Wells, U.S. // 1980 Hockey
You might wonder how an Olympic athlete could part with any gold medal, let alone one attached to such a historic and emotional victory. “Miracle on Ice” team member Mark Wells didn’t part with his 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. Mark Pavelich, U.S. // 1980 Hockey
Wells wasn't the only member of that storied hockey team to part with his medal. Mark Pavelich’s gold medal went for an impressive $262,900 at an auction in 2014. He did it for his daughter, saying, “I want her to get a step forward in life. That’s probably the biggest reason.”
3. Wladimir Klitschko, Ukraine // 1996 Boxing
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 in 2012, earning $1 million for the Klitschko Brothers Foundation, which helps fund children's sports camps and facilities. The bidder? A mysterious benefactor who immediately returned the medal to the man who earned it.
4. Anthony Ervin, U.S. // 2000 Swimming
Anthony Ervin won the gold in the 50-meter 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 50-meter in 2012, but failed to medal.
5. Otylia Jedrzejczak, Poland // 2004 Swimming
Before she even qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics, 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 200-meter 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.”
6. Piotr Malachowski, Poland // 2016 Track & Field
In 2016, Polish discus thrower Piotr Malachowski announced on Facebook that he was selling his silver medal from the Rio Summer Olympics to raise money for a child named Olek, who was fighting a rare form of eye cancer. The funds would help pay for Olek’s expensive surgery. “In Rio I fought for gold. Today I make an appeal to everyone,” he wrote. “If you help him, my silver medal might be more valuable to Olek than gold.”
Malachowski was aiming to raise around $84,000. Two Polish billionaires ultimately bought the medal, covering the cost of Olek’s surgery.
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 200-meter 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 website 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,” he told the New York Times.
Gary J. Zimet, a representative from Moments in Time auction house, said Smith planned to use some of the money to help fund a youth initiative. 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.
A version of this story originally ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.