Gold Medal Sold, and No Regrets

By Off the BASN Wire By Tim Dahlberg
Updated: May 21, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO,CA.—-Occasionally, there’s an athlete who comes along and makes you feel better about sports.

One who doesn’t complain about having to feed his family on $10 million a year. One who worries about deeper things than how late the hotel room service stays open.

Anthony Ervin is one of those athletes. He’s done well in his sport, though you might not know it by the way he lives his life. He rents a room in a San Francisco Bay area town house, drives a 15-year-old Toyota Camry and has a drawer full of socks with holes in them.

Ervin also has an Olympic gold medal. He won it in the swimming pool five years ago in Sydney, tying his teammate and friend Gary Hall for first in the 50-metre freestyle.

He won’t have it much longer. Ervin sold it earlier this month after putting it up for auction on eBay.

He wasn’t trying to scrape up enough money for a new car, or a nicer apartment. He’ll still be wearing socks with holes in them.

Ervin had other ideas, the kind you don’t hear from today’s spoiled multimillionaires. He wanted to help others with the only thing of value he had – the gold medal that represented the greatest moment of his career.

“I don’t really have any money or any kind of clout other than an Olympic medal,” he said. “I just thought I should give something back. I’ve gotten so much already.”

A man in the Philippines bought it, bidding $17,100 US for the medal that represents the greatest moment of Ervin’s career. His plans for it are hazy, though Ervin says he believes the man is a fan of his and is starting a swimming club.

The plans for the proceeds are much more clear. Ervin is giving it all to UNICEF for tsunami relief.

“I just wanted to make a gesture,” he said.

Ervin isn’t alone in that. Millions of other Americans took money out of their pockets to contribute to relief and rebuilding efforts from the Dec. 26 disaster that killed at least 126,000 people in Indonesia and another 48,000 in 10 other countries.

None, though, sold an Olympic gold medal to make a donation.

“Most people, mostly my friends, just thought I was crazy,” Ervin said. “But a lot of them at the same time thought it was the right thing to do. My family did as well, although they balked at me doing it at first.”

Ervin began forming the outlines of a charity idea even before the tsunami hit, when he was on a trip to Japan in December with Hall and coach Gary Bottoms to do swimming clinics. He retired from competitive swimming before the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but being around children at the clinics rekindled his interest in the sport.

Ervin checked around and found that flooding was a problem in Japan and other countries. With the connection to water, he thought he would try some way to tie help to flood victims with his return to swimming.

A few weeks later, the tsunami hit and he came up with the idea of selling his gold medal.

Ervin wasn’t doing it for the publicity. He got enough of that in Sydney, where reporters made a big deal out of the fact that he was the first swimmer of African-American heritage to make the U.S. swimming team.

Yes, he could use a sponsor to help him on the way to Beijing in 2008. But $17,100 would have paid some expenses, too.

“I have nothing to gain from this for myself other than if someone wants to sponsor me for swimming. But by the time I can compete and prove myself again people will have forgotten all about this,” said Ervin, who won’t compete competitively again until October. “This will have long since blown over.”

Ervin doesn’t know how successful he’ll be once he gets back in the pool. He’ll be 24 and his body is different from when he was a 19-year-old in Sydney. He has no eligibility left at the University of California and, while some things come easier, others seem harder.

What he does know is that this comes from the heart. He’s not doing it to advance either his swimming career or the country folk band in which he plays guitar and writes music.

He won’t even mention the name of the band.

“It’s a secret. I have to have a little integrity of my own,” Ervin said.

Meanwhile, the gold medal that mostly sat in a box in the back of his closet will soon be on its way out of the country. Ervin wants to win another three years from now in Beijing, but he understands the difficulties of winning medals eight years apart.

He may end up being known more as the guy who sold the gold medal than as a swimmer who won one. That’s OK with Ervin, though, if something good comes from it.

“I think anybody in general can help. You can find anything,” he said. “Everybody has interests of some kind, sorrows of some kind. Everybody suffers and it’s not that hard to find that suffering in you and find some kind of way of helping, whether it is volunteering or donating.”

That’s pretty deep advice coming from a college kid. Maybe it’s something today’s ball players should try to think about, too.

Assuming the room service is on time, that is.