Female Olympian Lives in Poverty; Endorsements to Blame?

There seems to be an annoyingly persistent trend regarding female athletes at these Olympic games. If you’re trim and cute — say, a member of the Dutch women’s field hockey team, you’re good to go. You can look forward to face time with the press, endorsements and maybe even earn yourself one of NBC’s overly dramatic, sob-story-behind-the-athlete spots. If, however, your sport requires a physique that’s maybe slightly less feminine, perhaps you’re a swimmer or a weightlifter, you’re on your own. You stand to either be criticized for being too manly, like British weightlifter Zoe Smith, or — possibly worse — ignored entirely.

Take U.S. weightlifter Sarah Robles for example. She’s ranked no. 1 among U.S. women listed in the super heavyweight division and placed 11th at last year’s world championships. She’s 5’10.5″, 275 pounds, and can lift well over twice her own body weight (her best is 568 lbs!). Definitely a world-class athlete at the top of her game. So what’s the problem? She’s relatively unknown to the general sports-viewing public, which makes it difficult for her to secure substantial endorsements. Robles says it best herself in an interview with BuzzFeed:

You can get a sponsorship if you’re a super-built guy or a girl who looks good in a bikini. But not if you’re a girl who’s built like a guy.

No endorsements obviously means no money, which in turn leaves aspiring Olympians like Robles, for whom training is the equivalent of a full time job, in a tough spot. If you’re slim, blond Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova, your endorsement deals with Nike and Tag Heuer will handily pay the bills so that you can focus on your athletic career. For Robles, however, her lack of commercial sponsorship means she has to figure out how to subsist on her $400 monthly stipend from U.S.A. Weightlifting, along with visits to food pantries and the good will of her loved ones.

I sense a wee bit of irony here (aside from the obvious objectification/perpetuance of an idealized female body image).  In order to perform at elite levels, athletes like Robles have to maintain body types outside of the popular norm for females. In order to focus on training and not have to worry about how to make a few hundred dollars last a whole month, they need to secure sponsorships or endorsements. In order to secure these deals, they need to have a slender, athletic build that appeals to the general sports-viewing public. If they do slim down, however, they jeopardize their ability to excel at their sport. It hardly seems fair, especially in an arena like the Olympics, where athletic ability should be the bottom line when it comes to individual athletes’ success. Robles again:

I still have bad thoughts about myself, but I’ve learned that you have to love yourself the way you are…I may look like this, but I’m in the Olympics because of the way I am.

Well said, Robles. Fortunately, internet ad firm Solve Media recently responded to the ThinkProgress petition on Robles’ behalf and offered her a sponsorship. Hallelujah!  Here’s what CEO Ari Jacoby had to say:

“It pained me to see someone at the top of her game working for what amounts to a few hundred dollars a month,” he said. “She’s the very best of the best, poised to end a 12-year medal drought in her sport. And she’s living this way because it’s her ultimate dream to represent her country and achieve greatness in the sport that she loves.”

How refreshing (and for once I mean that sincerely). It’s great that one company had the good sense to step up and reward Robles’ obvious dedication to her sport, but what about other non-traditionally shaped women in non-mainstream sports? Should we cross our fingers and hope that plus-sized, non-pixie-like women become the most sought after athletic spokespeople overnight? We probably shouldn’t hold our breaths. Should Olympic sports be narrowed down to only those that allow female participants to appear dainty and feminine? I doubt that one would go over well. Maybe we need a beautiful-people-only Olympic games to even the playing field? No?

In all seriousness, it would be great to see two things happen:

1. More companies like Solve Media should give women like Robles a chance at endorsements. Mainstream acceptance of women with varying body types won’t grow without exposure to different shapes and sizes.

2. The International Olympic Committee, its member nations, and individual sports associations should review how athletes are compensated. If athletes are going to represent their home countries and potentially bring them prestige on a world stage, it seems they deserve a fair chance to live above the poverty line — regardless of their appearance.

What do you think?

Related Stories:

Olympic Workers Living in Prison-like Slums

Older Women Athletes Show The Way

6 Female Athletes to Watch in London

Photo Credit: sillygwailo via Flickr


Stella Nobrega-Garcia

Thanks for the article.

Erica B.
Erica B.4 years ago

LOL! I wish I could give you another green star, Lee, but care2 says it hasn't been a week yet! That was priceless! LOL!

As far as the female weightlifter is concerned, I DO have sort-of an inside take on it. I've dated a couple of weightlifters in past years, and both of them were very large (what most people would call fat), but VERY strong too. Whether you are a male or a female, staying "thin" and "muscular" is the objective of BODYBUILDERS...but NOT WEIGHTLIFTERS. Weightlifters are pretty much always in the "bulk up" faze of their diets, since strength is their objective...and you cannot increase muscle size and strength by dieting down. It's a shame that the sports media, and society as a whole, don't understand that...at least where the women weightlifters are concerned.

Lee, that's a great idea...if clothing companies that specialize in "big and beautiful" women would approach Sarah Robles, as well as other "larger" female athletes, and offer endorsement opportunities. And as far as that goes, how about modeling contracts? If Cover Girl can use Queen Latifah, why can't they use women like Ms. Robles?

Lee Witton
4 years ago

Diane - since my comments seem to get deleted and your's do not when responding to you, I prefer you not try to engage me in any of the threads. Having said that, try reading what I said in the post instead of assuming my intent. I think it is pretty clearly stated.

Diane L.
Diane L.4 years ago

Lee, would you, if you were on the board of Wheaties (is that General Mills?) want an overweight person on the cover of the box of cereal which has, for decades, promoted itself as the "Breakfast of Champions" and promoting physical fitness? It wouldn't make much sense. That's like having a sumu wrestler advertising Activia or Jello.

I saw when watching The Olympics that Michael Phelps loves McDonalds. So do many of the athletes. They said Michael eats 8000 calories a day, and showed how much food he'd get at McDonalds to fulfill that "quota". Apolo Ohno said the minute he was done with his events, he was heading to McDonald's to pig out. So, should McDonald's use him in their ads? I think he actually endores Subway, but I could be mistaken there. Athletes will take sponsor money whenever they can, IF they can. Doesn't necessarily mean they use the products, but they should, I think, if they have any ethics. I wonder how many celebs that PETA uses to promote their "agenda" eat a vegan diet? I hope that's not digressing too much, but we all know it happens where PETA and celebs such as Pamela Anderson are concerned. PETA "uses" Pamela, and Pamela is highly paid to promote PETA. She wants their money. Companies use "celebs", athletes and faces that they think will increase their profits/business.

Lee Witton
4 years ago

I doubt the weightlifter is going to appear on the front of the Wheaties box unless she's trims down. She is not just muscle, she is very overweight as well. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans are not going to be 'impressed' so much if the person is not physically fit, so I believe it nothing less than reasonable for the potential endorser to let the athlete know what their expectations are like; "we will consider endorsing you if you lose weight" and the athlete has the option of saying yay or nay". On the other hand, a endorsement from a company who supports women (say, a clothing manufacturer) as "big and beautiful" would be great because it sends a message that you can be who you are, an incredible athlete, and beautiful, despite one's size.

Erica B.
Erica B.4 years ago

"I find it really appalling to hear the same people who have the attitude of 'tough if you have to live on minimum wage, get 5 roommates' attitude."...Lee W.

Lee, I couldn't have said it any better than that! Seriously, it isn't whining and complaining to want/expect our country to support our Olympic athletes in training! Our country expects their top athletes to excel and "medal" because it makes us look GOOD in the international scene, but it DOESN'T look good for those same athletes to be living at poverty level! Kind of a catch 22 situation.

American Olympic athletes...no matter what sport they excel in...need financial help so that they can concentrate on becoming the best in the world. What athlete is going to give their all, when they or their family are going bankrupt, living in a van under a bridge, and without enough food to properly train? Why doesn't the US Olympic Committee come up with some kind of sliding scale, where the poorer athletes are given a bigger training "allowance," and the wealthier athletes aren't given so much? We need to do SOMETHING, right?

Sandra Smook
Past Member 4 years ago

The participant nations all vie for gold,and shower the winning athletes with praise, no matter what they look like. Endorsements follow - they should be offered to ALL athletes - I have no problem with a female weight-lifter posed on a box of Wheaties. (Does anybody eat Wheaties? Just wondering...)

Lee Witton
4 years ago

I hope things change positively for athletes training to represent their country. They deserve a hand up and our country benefits from the dedication and hard work of these athletes. Whether or not they get endorsements doesn't matter, but to receive the assistance of sponsors would make a huge difference, along with some stipends while in training from our government that don't require being paid back.

Marjorie F.
Marjorie F.4 years ago

In other countries Olympic athletes are treated with respect and the government funds programs for training and living expenses. They are not treated according to their looks but how well they perform. They are given what they need regardless of looks. Personally I don't recall the Olympic sport of looks, if I am wrong please point it out to me.

I also will point out that this is lopsided especially with women as men are allowed to be less attractive, bulkier and still receive endorsement deals. I don't think they are held to the same standards of attractiveness as women, never have been either.

Sammstein M.
samantha M.4 years ago