Sports

After The Games: What Olympic Heroes Are Up To Now

by Tosten Burks

August 19, 2016

The 2016 Rio Games are coming to a close Sunday night, but names like Biles, Bolt, Manuel, and Ledecky will live on. Each Olympics christens its own class of icons – athletes who transcend quadrennial competition to become near-mythological figures. While still walking among us, they become public memories. Over the last 50 years, many have entered the ranks. Here’s what some of those athletes accomplished after they left the medal stand.

Tommie Smith, USA (1968)

Image via Angelo Cozzi (cc)

Smith, who originally planned to boycott the Mexico City games to protest white minority rule in South Africa and Rhodesia, made history when he raised a Black Power fist on the podium after winning gold in the 200-meter dash. He went on to play three seasons for the Cleveland Browns and taught sociology at Oberlin and Santa Monica College for decades. Today he's retired in Georgia.

John Carlos, USA (1968)

Image via Angelo Cozzi (cc)

Earning bronze in Mexico City’s 200-meter dash, Carlos raised his fist with Smith, completing the iconic image. After the games, the sprinter had a stint in the Canadian Football League, worked for the United States Olympic Committee, and coached high school track in Palm Springs. Still politically active, Carlos participated in the Global Human Rights Torch Rally protesting China’s human rights abuses in 2008, and spoke at Occupy Wall Street in 2011.

Věra Čáslavská, CZE (1960, 1964, 1968)

Image via Dutch National Archives (cc)

Čáslavská dominated gymnastics in Tokyo and Mexico City, winning individual all-around gold both summers. The Czech gymnast also turned her medal ceremony into protest in 1968, amidst the invasion of Czechoslovakia, when she pointedly bowed her head every time the Soviet national anthem played. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Čáslavská worked as a Presidential adviser and ran the Czech Olympic Committee. She still lives in Prague.

Mark Spitz, USA (1968, 1972)

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Spitz was the world’s best swimmer in Mexico City and Munich, winning nine gold medals, mustache and all. After the games, Spitz racked up endorsements, bought a Ferrari, and started a Beverly Hills real estate company. Today he travels the lecture circuit and throws occasional shade at Michael Phelps.

Nadia Comăneci, ROU (1976, 1980)

Comăneci broke the scoreboard when her uneven bars routine earned a perfect 10.00 in Montreal—literally, the manufacturer didn’t think it was possible. That year, the 14-year-old Romanian gymnast took home individual all-around gold. After her coaches defected to the United States in ‘81, Comăneci lived under government supervision until she defected herself in ‘89, weeks before the revolution. In her second life, she’s been a diplomatic counsul, the vice president of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and a contestant on The Apprentice. She currently serves on the Special Olympics’ board of directors and is married to fellow gymnast and two-time Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner.

Caitlyn Jenner, USA (1976)

Image via Ricardo Thomas (cc)

When Jenner won the men's decathlon in Montreal as Bruce Jenner, seizing the title back from the Soviets, she became a national symbol, stamped on Wheaties boxes and birthed into Hollywood. After years of cameos and reality show appearances, she’s now perhaps best known as the stepfather of American television’s first family. Jenner came out as a transgender woman last year and is a vocal advocate for trans rights.

Mary Lou Retton, USA (1984)

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Five weeks after a major knee injury, Retton won individual all-around gold in Los Angeles, scoring perfect 10s on floor exercise and vault, entering America’s heart. Retton became an outspoken Republican in her post-gymnastics career, campaigning hard for Ronald Reagan and speaking at the party’s 2004 national convention. Today, two of her daughters are college gymnasts.

Greg Louganis, USA (1976, 1984, 1988)

Image via Flickr by findingmuse

Louganis swept the diving pool in Los Angeles and Seoul, winning gold both years on the springboard and platform. In 1995, he came out as gay and HIV-positive in an interview with Barbara Walters, and in recent years has advocated widely for LGBT rights. Louganis also competes in dog agility competitions with his pets: Dr. Schivago, Captain Woof Blitzer, Nipper, Gryffindor, Dobby, and Hedwig.

Edwin Moses, USA (1976, 1984, 1988)

Image via International Olympic Committee

Moses won gold in the 400-meter hurdles in Montreal and Los Angeles, but left his legacy on the Olympics as an administrator: He spearheaded a campaign to institute Olympic athlete subsidies and eligibility reforms that remain in place today, and also helped develop track and field’s anti-drug policies. For the last 15 years, he’s directed the Laureus World Sports Academy, which builds community sports-based development programs in underserved communities around the world.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, USA (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996)

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Despite serious asthma problems, Joyner-Kersee won back-to-back hepathlon golds in Seoul and Barcelona; she still holds the world’s highest all-time score. In retirement, she played in the short-lived American Basketball League, started an athletic resources non-profit in Illinois, and helped found the charity Athletes for Hope. She also is set to be part of the U.S. delegation at Sunday’s closing ceremony.

Carl Lewis, USA (1984, 1988, 1992, 1996)

Image via The University of Houston (cc)

Though haunted by doping allegations reported in 2003, Lewis was America’s greatest male track and field athlete of the last half-century. In his post-sports life, after a failed singing career, he became an actor. In 2011, Lewis tried to run for New Jersey Senate, but was disqualified for not meeting the state’s residency requirement.

Kerri Strug, USA (1992, 1996)

Image via U.S. National Archives

Strug clinched team gold for the Magnificent Seven in Atlanta with her vault routine on an injured ankle—coach Béla Károly famously carried her to the medal stand. After gymnastics, Strug worked in the White House, the Treasury Department, and the Justice Department under George W. Bush. She still runs marathons.

Jenny Thompson, USA (1992, 1996, 2000, 2004)

Image via Team USA

Across four Olympics, Thompson won 12 medals and eight golds, making her one of the most decorated swimmers ever. Two years after the Athens Games, she received her medical degree from Columbia and today works as an anesthesiologist in Maine.

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