Years of training. Sore muscles — sometimes even broken bones. Strict eating and workout regimes. Sacrifice: missing out on family events and life’s normal milestones in favor of breaking personal records.
The life of an Olympic athlete is tough, but if they’re lucky, all that hard work will pay off with one of sporting’s highest honors: an Olympic medal. After all the years of sacrifice, the moment when an athlete stands on the podium and is presented with one of athletics’ top prizes, as confetti flies all around and their national anthem plays in the background—that moment is priceless.
But, it turns out, you can put a price on priceless. Increasingly, athletes and auction houses like RR Auction have been selling Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals, along with other memorabilia, with many choosing to give the proceeds to charity. And, there’s a large community of enthusiasts willing to pay thousands to own a medal from their favorite athlete.
Twelve-time Team USA Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte is one of those athletes. In the 126-year history of the modern Olympic Games, a total of only 40 athletes have collected more than 10 Olympic medals. Lochte is among this select group, a key member of Team USA’s swimming team that dominated four consecutive Summer Games between 2004 and 2016. Lochte’s 12 medals—six gold, three silver and three bronze— are tied for second-most among swimmers, trailing only his teammate, legendary Baltimore-born swimmer Michael Phelps, who holds a record 28.
“Those medals mean a lot to me, I worked my (rear) off for them,” Lochte told the Associated Press, “but helping other people out is more important to me, especially because I have kids of my own.”
“I don’t want people to think I didn’t care about the medals,” Lochte, 37, added in an interview with NBC Sports. “I cherish them, but they’re just sitting in my closet collecting dust.”
Lochte wanted to pay it forward, so he chose to give all proceeds from the auction to the Jorge Nation Foundation, a non-profit organization that sends seriously or terminally ill children on dream vacations to a destination of their choosing. He sold six of his medals in total with RR Auction.
Among the medals Lochte chose to part with is the first individual Olympic medal he ever won, a silver from the 2004 Athens summer games, which he won swimming the 200-meter individual medley. The lot ended up going for over $21,000.
The top bid, coming in over $71,000, was for two of Lochte’s bronze medals from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. He earned the medals through two third-place finishes in the 200-meter individual medley and 400-meter individual medley.
“They’re in perfect condition. They have beautiful ribbons,” says RR Auction executive president Bobby Livingston. “Ryan’s are obviously extremely interesting to people who collect medals.”
All in all, Lochte raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Jorge Nation Foundation. And he still owns several of his medals—he held on to all the golds—so more could be on the market in the future. He told NBC Sports he “feels amazing” about “helping kids out,” and he’s likely to do another charity auction again soon.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Olympic gymnast Ruslan Mezentsev auctioned off his rare Sydney Summer 2000 Olympic Games silver medal for a cause extremely close to his heart. He told RR Auction he’d be donating 100% of the proceeds to his hometown in Ukraine to aid the ongoing war effort there.
Mezentsev competed in the floor exercise, pommel horse, and still rings in the men’s all-around competition in the summer of 2000, helping his team take home second in the men’s artistic team all-around.
RR Auction, in solidarity with Mezentsev and his hometown, donated 100% of its buyer’s premium on this lot to the Ukrainian war effort as well.
Collectively, Mezentsev and RR Auction were able to send nearly $15,000 to his home in Ukraine, from the sale of just one medal.