What's a gold worth when nobody's sure you deserved it? Gymnast Paul Hamm might tell you. What's it worth when you've won five others? "Between $30 million and $50 million" over Michael Phelps's lifetime, says his agent, Peter Carlisle.
What's it worth overseas? The Romanian government will give each of its gymnasts who won the women's team title $50,000 cash, two cars, a college scholarship and a rent-free apartment. Not bad in a country where the average take-home pay is less than $175 a month. In Ukraine a gold fetches $100,000, plus a free apartment in Kiev. Win gold in Kenya, and you get a flat-screen TV and a washing machine.
But what's a gold medal worth if you lose it? Ask Matt Emmons of the U.S. With one shot to go in Athens, Emmons was on his way to a laugher of a win in the three-position 50-meter rifle event. In fact, all he had to do was hit the target. It'd be like telling Picasso all he had to do was hit the canvas.
Emmons fired, then looked at his monitor to see how he'd done. But there was no bullet hole. He told an official he thought there was some weird glitch. Just then the official saw two holes in the target of the shooter next to Emmons and announced that the American would receive a zero for the shot.
"I changed my routine a little," Emmons said, "and it cost me."
With one crossfire Emmons, 23, had blown a gold medal and the $25,000 bonus the USOC pays for gold. That kind of money may be cab fare to Phelps, but it's large to a guy going to school and driving a used Blazer.
"I don't know why, but my first thought wasn't, I want to cut my throat," said Emmons, who earlier in the Games had won the 50-meter prone rifle event. "I just said to myself, These things happen."
So he did something completely screwy. He didn't blame anybody but himself. Didn't blame the setup, in which the targets were only three feet apart, unusually cramped in shooting. He didn't file a protest or a grievance, or fake a motorcycle accident. He just said, "I made a mistake, and I don't deserve the gold medal."
He put down his rifle, shook the hand of the shocked winner and hugged teammate Michael Anti, who had suddenly won silver.
And that's when all the good stuff started happening.