Meet Sarah Robles. She can lift as much as 570 pounds. In last year's weightlifting world championships, she bested every other American—both female and male. Sarah Robles is going to the Olympics in London this summer. But at home, in the United States, she lives on $400 a month.
Track star Lolo Jones, 29, soccer player Alex Morgan, 22, and swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, are natural television stars with camera-friendly good looks and slim, muscular figures. But women weightlifters aren't go-tos when Sports Illustrated is looking for athletes to model body paint in the swimsuit issue. They don’t collaborate with Cole Haan on accessories lines and sit next to Anna Wintour at Fashion Week, like tennis beauty Maria Sharapova. And male weightlifters often get their sponsorships from supplements or diet pills, because their buff, ripped bodies align with male beauty ideals. Men on diet pills want to look like weightlifters — most women would rather not.
Meanwhile, Robles — whose rigorous training schedule leaves her little time for outside work — struggles to pay for food. It would be hard enough for the average person to live off the $400 a month she receives from U.S.A. Weightlifting, but it’s especially difficult for someone who consumes 3,000 to 4,000 calories a day, a goal she meets through several daily servings of grains, meats and vegetables, along with weekly pizza nights. She also gets discounted groceries from food banks and donations from her coach, family and friends — or, as Robles says, “prayers and pity.”
She's not alone. Holley Mangold, the other American woman who'll be doing Olympic weightlifting in the same division, works part-time for a BBQ restaurant and lives in a friend's converted laundry room.
In fact, while the biggest stars in the most-watched events can pick up million-dollar endorsement deals, the truth is that most Olympic athletes live on extremely modest incomes. That's especially true in countries like Canada, which lacks the kind of government support system you find in places like China and Russia, but also lacks the plethora of large and small private endorsement deals that are available to some (but not all) American Olympians.
I think this is interesting. Every time the Olympics come up, I hear friends and talking heads alike arguing that the amateur athlete no longer exists. Everybody in the Olympics is really a professional and that makes it all less exciting—or so goes the conventional wisdom. The reality is that, for the most part, we're talking about people who make big sacrifices to be able to compete at a high level in a sport they're obsessed with for its own sake, not because they're getting rich. Sponsorships, rather than tainting the sport, do also help some athletes know where their next meal is coming from. After reading some of these articles, I think the vast majority of Olympic athletes probably fall squarely into Happy Mutant territory.
Read the rest of Buzzfeed's profile of Sarah Robles
• Read the New York Times' profile of weightlifter Holley Mangold
• Ivestopedia: Olympic Athletes—Back to Reality
• Wired: Olympic Runner Fights to Change Sponsorship Rules
• ABC News: How Can Olympic Athletes Find a Real Job?
• Time Magazine: Keeping Afloat (which contrasts the profits of the U.S. Olympic Committee with the small incomes that support many Olympic athletes)
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.