Not all Olympic medalists become rich and famous.
Not All Olympic Winners Get Big-Money Deals
Thursday, February 16, 2006
By Tomoeh Murakami Tse The Washington Post
If there ever was an Olympic tale made for the front of a cereal box, Chris Thorpe's story seemed to be it.
After a career slowed by dislocated shoulders, chronic back spasms and two failed attempts to win a medal, he finally took home a silver in Nagano in 1998--the first-ever medal for an American in the sport of luge.
``It was pretty crazy, getting whisked from the track to the TV set,'' he said. ``It was overwhelming.''
Less overwhelming, however, was the effect on his wallet. There were parades and television appearances, but no cereal box. He failed to land multiyear endorsement deals, or even a single TV commercial, even after adding another medal--bronze--four years later in Salt Lake City. These days, Thorpe works as a personal trainer and collects a few thousand dollars for the occasional speaking engagement.
More than most, Thorpe understands a simple reality for cashing in on the Olympics: The color of the medal matters, the sport matters, and fame is fleeting.
As the Turin Games enter their fifth day, the business world's quadrennial crush to market winning athletes to U.S. consumers is well underway.
``The calls have already started to come,'' Peter Carlisle, director of Olympics and action sports for the marketing firm Octagon, said in a phone interview from Turin soon after medal-winning performances by three clients--snowboarders Hannah Teter, Gretchen Bleiler and Danny Kass.
``It's a lot tougher than people think,'' longtime sports agent Arthur Kaminsky said. ``In 1984, Americans won 83 gold medals in Los Angeles. There weren't 83 millionaires coming out of there.''
Marketing experts say agents must capitalize on a small window of opportunity that closes three to eight months after the Olympic flame is extinguished. The 2006 Games also represent a new challenge, they say: U.S. athletes must be marketed at a time when television ratings are falling, corporate marketing strategies are shifting and the battle for Olympic-related advertising is increasingly competitive.
To rise above the clutter, experts said, athletes must have the right combination of a winning Olympic performance and telegenic personality, plus good luck and timing. The exception can be luminaries such as Michelle Kwan and Bode Miller, whose marketability transcend their sports, analysts said.
Miller, with his image as the bad boy of Alpine skiing, raked in endorsements even before the Turin Olympics began, though he has since turned in disappointing performances. And although Kwan dropped out of the Olympics this week, many experts agreed that her long-term marketability should endure.
Some, however, said nine-time national champion Kwan might have cost herself a multimillion-dollar payday by not adding an Olympic gold medal to her trophies.
``It's the difference between people looking at her as achieving her dream and people looking at her and feeling maybe a little sorry for her,'' said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco. ``It's the difference of someone saying: 'Now there's a winner. She did everything she set out to do.' ''
Her agent, Shep Goldberg, disagreed. ``History has proven 100 percent the opposite,'' he said this week, noting that although Coca-Cola dropped a commercial portraying fans cheering on Kwan, it kept another with her in it.
For most Olympic athletes, a gold medal is a prerequisite for the elite race for endorsements.
``With a few exceptions, it starts with gold,'' Dorfman said. ``Americans love winning, and gold is the ultimate victory.''
Winning the silver medal at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics brought modest fame to figure skater Linda Fratianne, who appeared on television commercials for Procter & Gamble, made two exercise videos and skated for 10 years with Disney on Ice. For Fratianne, not winning gold was a ``blessing in disguise.''
``I'm a very private person,'' Fratianne said. ``All the attention I got was the perfect amount I could handle.''
Fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan had greater commercial success, signing a Disney contract worth a reported $2 million. Forbes estimated she made twice that in endorsements in 1994, the year she won a silver medal.
But had she won a gold medal, some experts say, she could have joined Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming as an icon recognized on television decades after her Olympic moment.
``What hurt more than anything was that she finished second,'' said Kaminsky, who represented speedskater Eric Heiden and the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team.
A few post-Olympic slip-ups also hurt, Dorfman said. Kerrigan was ready to become a media darling after a silver-medal performance at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer. Images of her crying ``why me?'' after associates of rival Tonya Harding struck her in the knee won her worldwide sympathy. But during a paid appearance in a Disney parade, Kerrigan was filmed saying: ``This is so corny. ... I hate this.''
``She could have been the next Mary Lou Retton,'' Dorfman said. ``You just don't disparage Disneyland. That's a holy icon in America, and there's no way to kind of fix that.''
Jerry Solomon, Kerrigan's husband and agent, said that her words were taken out of context and that she had secured numerous endorsements before the Harding ordeal. Although a television movie by Disney was canceled, Solomon said the comment had nothing to do with it.
``I think that it's always fun for everybody to speculate on the dollar,'' he said. ``I don't really know whether any of that cost her a dollar or a million dollars or made her a million dollars.''
Skater Timothy Goebel, 25, won no endorsements after winning the bronze in Salt Lake City in 2002. ``Men's figure skating is really not such a huge draw for sponsorships,'' said Goebel, who is retiring from competitive skating after failing to win a spot on the Turin team. He has since had ``very limited'' opportunities, and only in figure-skating circles, Goebel said, and though he'd welcome the chance to do professional skating tours before attending college, that may not happen as much as he would like.
``A lot of it depends on whether another American man medals in Turin. If someone comes along and gets a medal, I'm kind of old news,'' said Goebel, who stressed that he wanted U.S. skaters to do well.
Not every Olympian wants a celebrity career. Gold medalist Sarah Hughes was flooded with commercial opportunities after becoming the surprise darling of the 2002 Olympics but turned most down, said her agent, Kaminsky.
``They were walking into her father's office once an hour for probably a few months,'' he said. ``Her major interest is to go to college.''
Such attention isn't a problem for those in less-well-known sports such as luge and the biathlon. Jim Shea Jr., who won the gold in skeleton in 2002, recalls soliciting his own endorsement deals with a local bank in Utah and Sprint before the Salt Lake City Olympics. It helped that he had a compelling personal story: He was a third-generation Olympian whose grandfather died a month before his competition.
``I negotiated all the deals myself,'' he said. ``I would ask companies to help me out and they'd say, 'Sounds great. Just one thing: What's skeleton?' ''
Chris Thorpe, the luger, said the excitement over his victories died down after about two months and today, few of his students realize that he was in the Olympics. But, Thorpe, 35, who holds 31 international medals and numerous American records, is satisfied with the money he earned from race winnings.
``My wife and I don't have car payments or a mortgage,'' Thorpe said. ``It was enough. It was a great lifestyle. I did pretty well for riding a sled down a mountain.''
BARBIEis coming for your towel, too.