They may have won gold medals in the world’s biggest sporting competition, but for some of these Olympic athletes, their greatest accomplishment has been their sobriety.
In 2008, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps made news headlines when a photo surfaced of him smoking marijuana at a party at the University of South Carolina. The press and public were quick to voice their outrage and Phelps lost several sponsorships as a result. A journalist for the New York Post has speculated that if Phelps had been a football or baseball player, the drug use and subsequent DUIs and rumored hookups with strippers wouldn’t have come as such a shock. Olympic athletes, she surmised, are “held to an impossibly high standard”. The illusion that the Olympics is somehow immune from the heavy drinking and drugging that plagues other sporting competitions is just that: an illusion. As the New York Post article reports, Olympians are oftentimes far from squeaky clean. At the Olympic villages, big-name beer companies hand out free booze and athletes party into the wee morning hours. While some competitors may stick to their strict training schedules and abstain from alcohol during competition, this is frequently only true of those in the top tier. For the many who recognize they have no real shot at medalling, the Olympics is used as an opportunity to make the best of the exotic locale, decadent digs, and free alcohol. The way some former participants have described it, “partying” is such a popular, competitive, and integral part of the Games, it might as well be its own officially recognized sport. Whatever happens in Rio, come this September, most Olympians will return home to their full-time jobs and regular routines. There will be a few, however, for whom the party doesn’t stop after the closing ceremony. It will follow them home, wreaking havoc on their relationships and careers. This was the case for Michael Phelps whose excessive drinking nearly cost him another shot at the gold. The following are several accounts from Olympic athletes past and present who have bravely spoken openly about their struggles with substance abuse and their efforts to remain on the path towards recovery.
1. Michael Phelps, Swimmer
With 22 medals to his name (18 of those gold), Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in world history. In 2014, after he received his second DUI in 10 years, he checked himself into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center and remained there for 45 days. He recently spoke with TODAY’s Matt Lauer about that period, saying: “I set myself down a downward spiral. I think it was more of a sign that I had to get something under control… At one point I felt like I didn’t want to see another day.” When Lauer pressed him about his drinking, asking him if he thought he had a problem, Phelps said he didn’t know if he was an alcoholic or not. He is committed, however, to staying sober through the Rio Olympics.
2. Oksana Baiul, Figure Skater
Ukrainian figure skater Oksana Baiul won the 1993 World Championship and the ladies singles competition in the 1994 Olympics. Baiul was at the peak of her skating career, but inside, she was suffering. In 1997, Baiul crashed her car into a tree in Connecticut and was arrested for driving under the influence. She avoided jail time, but continued to drink until she checked herself into a rehab facility a few months later. Although Baiul hasn’t spoken publicly about her recovery recently, in a 2004 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Baiul stated that she’d been sober for six years.
3. Shaun Palmer, Snowboarder
Shaun Palmer is a professional snowboarder, mountain biker, and motorcross racer and was once hailed as possibly ‘the world’s greatest athlete’ in a USA Today article. In 2005, however, “the forefather of extreme sports” nearly died after overdosing on alcohol, cocaine, and prescription medications. He got sober, however, and qualified for the 2006 Winter Olympics, earning himself a spot on the US Olympic Snowboarding Team. Tragically, Palmer was injured two weeks later and was unable to compete in the Torino Winter Games.
4. Dan Smith, Swimmer
For Australian swimmer Dan Smith, the road to the Rio Olympics (his first) hasn’t been a smooth one. Just a few years ago, Smith was homeless, having struggled with a five-year alcohol and drug addiction that left him, in his words, “miserable, sad, lost, broken.” His fall from grace had left family, friends, and fans heartbroken and dismayed, because at 14, Smith had been a swimming star, wracking up so many national titles that he’d earned himself comparisons to several Olympian swimmers, including 5-time Gold medalist Ian Thorpe. Smith eventually decided to get help in 2013 and checked himself into an alcohol and drug rehab treatment center. The turning point, as he explained to the Courier Mail, came when “reality clicked in”. “I was living on the street. I had no family, no one wanted to talk to me anymore and it was a very lonely life…” Dan Smith, now 25, is reportedly still sober and set to swim in the Rio Olympics. Whether he wins or loses, he will have fulfilled a dream that he has had since he was five years old. He hopes his story will show others that it’s never too late to make a comeback.
5. Oscar De La Hoya, Boxer
The day after boxer Oscar De La Hoya won the 1992 Olympics, he showed up to speak with a panel of news reporters and was so hungover, he fell asleep in the middle of the interview. He was 19 years old. Over the next 20 years, as De La Hoya explained in an interview with The Associated Press, his drinking problem continued to spiral out of control until he finally sought help at a treatment center (for the second time) at the age of 41. By most recent accounts, De La Hoya remains sober today. “I went to rehab to … I needed to rehabilitate my soul, my inside, and search for who I really am,” De La Hoya said in a 2014 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News. “I got lost…It happens. And wow, I came back.”