Gardner angry at USOC's decision to halt payments
Rulon Gardner, the wrestling heavyweight who won Olympic gold in 2000, then left his shoes on the mat after taking bronze in the 2004 Olympic Games, backed out of a planned speaking engagement next month in protest of the U.S. Olympic Committee's decision to end his health insurance and his grant money.
Gardner was scheduled to speak at a summit of Olympic hopefuls June 9-12 in Beaver Creek, Colo., talking about how to prepare for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
"I want to help the USOC, because I believe in the Olympic Games. But they don't think an athlete deserves that money. And I have to think about the rest of my life," Gardner said last week in an interview with The Denver Post. "Am I going to do an appearance for two days for no money? I have to go out and earn a living."
Five years ago in Sydney, Gardner stunned the wrestling world, ending Alexander Karelin's 13-year international winning streak to win gold in Greco-Roman wrestling. Last summer in Athens, Gardner outlasted Sajad Barzi for a 3-0 victory and the bronze medal, leaving his shoes on the mat as a symbolic way of retiring.
As an Olympic athlete, Gardner had a contract until July with the USOC to provide health insurance and $2,000 annually. But because the money is meant to support Olympic hopefuls, USOC rules say Gardner was no longer eligible following his retirement.
"The USOC has empathy for Rulon. But as great a person as he is, even if I have the money, I can't give it to him," said Mitch Hull, director of national teams at USA Wrestling. "I have to answer to my board. And they'll ask me, 'Well, did he retire? What does the policy say?' The policy says he's not eligible for the money."
"Hey, those were pretty expensive shoes he left on the mat," Hull said. "They cost him $2,000, unfortunately."
At least one of Gardner's Olympic teammates, Cael Sanderson, has continued receiving his benefits. Although Sanderson, now an assistant coach at Iowa State, hasn't wrestled since Athens, he also hasn't said whether he will retire or try to make the team again for the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Hull said perhaps Olympic athletes should lobby for continuing support after their retirement from spot.
But in the meantime, Gardner said he was insulted by the response of Olympic officials.
"Ten years I gave to the sport. I won a bronze medal, walked away and then, in March, I lost my insurance and they pulled my $2,000 in annual grant money," Gardner said. "My contract wasn't up until July. I had viewed that money like severance pay, something to help me move on. But for me, it was like a slap in the face."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press
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