Tolerance Is Skating On Pretty Thin Ice

ALICE STEINBACH

March 12, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

She became America's sweetheart in 1976, Dorothy Hamill did, when she skated her way to the Olympic gold medal in Innsbruck. But the real gold awaited Hamill who, with her fresh, all-American looks and spectacular talent, was a natural for the sports-marketing experts on Madison Avenue.

So, following in the groundbreaking footsteps of 1968 gold medal winner Peggy Fleming -- who earned millions of dollars from endorsements, commercials and exhibition tours -- Hamill reportedly raked in something like $5 million after winning the gold. Even now, 16 years after Innsbruck, she's still appearing in television commercials.

Of course, America hasn't had a woman figure skater bring home the Olympic gold since that 1976 win of Hamill's. That is, until last month when 20-year-old Kristi Yamaguchi from Fremont, Calif., did just that in the 1992 winter Olympics at Albertville.

By all rights then -- given her talent, beauty and the spectacular success on Madison Avenue of other skating stars -- Yamaguchi would seem a shoo-in to be the next darling of the advertising moguls.

As big, perhaps, as gymnast Mary Lou Retton who made millions by catapulting straight from her Olympic gold medal onto America's television screens. Dressed in red, white and blue, looking for all the world like a miniature American flag, Retton smiled that dazzling all-American smile and hawked everything from cereal to cars.

But now comes the word that Kristi Yamaguchi may not reap the same financial benefits from her gold medal as prior champions have. That although she has signed on with some major advertisers -- a box of Special K cereal carrying her picture should show up soon -- other companies are slow in approaching her for endorsements.

Bronze-medal winner Nancy Kerrigan, on the other hand, is said to have been approached by quite a few companies with big bucks to spend. And not only in print promotions, but also on television, where the real money is.

On the surface, all this makes no sense. At least not until yoTTC read the growing number of newspaper and TV stories that suggest that the reluctance of some corporations to use Yamaguchi as their representative is not because she is less talented or attractive than Hamill or Retton or Kerrigan -- it's because Yamaguchi does not look like the girl next door.

Unless, that is, you live in Tokyo.

To put it bluntly: It seems that Kristi Yamaguchi may be a victim of America's recent preoccupation with Japan-bashing.

Or as sports agent Jay Goldberg recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "With all the Japan-bashing going on in the United States, some companies will just shy away."

On the other hand, the reigning ice queen of Madison Avenue, Katarina Witt, has gone very high profile with her recent, lucrative Diet Coke TV ads. But then the German-born Katarina Witt looks American.

Some Japanese Americans understand this attitude all too well: "People in the advertising world view her [Yamaguchi] as a victim of circumstances in the sense that right now, given the fact there is this tension with Japan, she portrays the 'wrong look,' " Dennis Hayashi of the Japanese American Citizens League told CBS recently.

But it's an attitude Kristi Yamaguchi doesn't understand. "I am American," she told CBS News when the question of her commercial viability was raised. "I feel privileged to have a Japanese heritage, but I'm fourth-generation American."

Fourth-generation American! I don't know about you, but the Yamaguchi family's got my family beat by a couple of generations.

Of course, the saddest aspect of all this -- if the stories prove true -- is not that Kristi Yamaguchi won't be raking in as many millions as Mary Lou Retton or Katarina Witt. The really bad news here is what such an attitude says about the state of prejudice and intolerance in America -- toward other Americans.

Because the truth is we're not talking here of Japan-bashing, of striking back at the Japanese for some of the inflammatory remarks made about American workers. What we have in the case of Kristi Yamaguchi is not Japan-bashing but America-bashing. Because Yamaguchi is not Japanese. She's American. Fourth-generation American, remember?

But right now, some Americans are giving Japanese Americans a hard time. There are reports of bomb threats and gunshots and other harassment toward Americans of Japanese heritage.

It's been said that one of America's greatest strengths is its diversity -- its ability to find a place for people of talent, whether their names are Schwarzkopf or Cuomo or Mikulski.

Let's hope that the same will be true for a name like Yamaguchi.

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