Fame's hour passes quickly Medalists: Thousands of athletes have won Olympic gold medals, but only a few have been able to turn their achievement into a career.

July 21, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Don Markus and Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

ATLANTA -- Bruce Jenner's job is to be Bruce Jenner.

Twenty years after winning his Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, Jenner is a legend-for-hire, socializing with corporate bosses, giving motivational speeches and appearing in infomercials to sell exercise products.

"I work for VISA now," he says. "Back when I competed, I couldn't even afford a credit card."

Jenner is the symbol of the ultimate, modern Olympic hero, the athlete who wins, cashes in, and lives happily ever after telling his tale to fee-paying audiences.

At the Centennial Summer Olympics, there are scores of athletes who aspire to follow Jenner's path to long-term riches. But to become a star on this global stage, able to transcend sports and the Olympics, takes more than simply winning a gold medal.

For every Jenner, there are hundreds of anonymous gold-medal winners, all equally superb in their disciplines, yet each somehow missing a part of that magical formula that equals all-time stardom -- and popularity.

"It's just something the American public latches on to," Jen- ner says. "But what that is, I don't know.

"Zillions of people win gold medals," he says. "Too many of those people think that if you win, you'll be on easy street the rest of your life. That's not even close to reality.

"Take the 1972 Olympics. Swimmer Mark Spitz. Won lots of golds, lasted a year. Nice guy, just wasn't meant to be out there in the public.

"All right, 1976. I've been able to keep the ball rolling for 20 years. And [Romanian gymnast] Nadia Comaneci is now hot. But for 15 years, we didn't even know where she was.

"Nineteen-eighty. The boycott. No U.S. No stars.

"Nineteen-eighty-four. Los Angeles. One person stood the test of time, Mary Lou Retton.

"Nineteen-eighty-eight. Not one person. Ben Johnson killed it for everybody," when the Canadian sprinter was banned for steroid use. "And 1992, who comes to mind, Magic Johnson? That's scary. Nobody came out of those Games very marketable."

Jenner's point?

"The chance of doing something big-time is infinitesimal," he says.

True Olympic stardom is about talent, luck, looks, a great and memorable athletic moment, and a story that grabs hold of an audience. It can't be manufactured, but it surely can be marketed.

And one other thing: The great Olympic moment must appear on television, preferably accompanied by either flowing tears or unrestrained joy.

"My rule of thumb is you've got to do something great and a lot of things have to go right," says Brandon Steiner, a sports talent broker in New York.

Increasingly, though, it's difficult to find the right combination of charisma and pathos that adds up to an Olympic legend. The days when a kid next door popped up out of nowhere to win a gold medal are nearly gone. Now, a 14-year-old gymnast named Dominique Moceanu puts out her autobiography before the Olympics while swimmers, weightlifters, cyclists and runners pose for arty photo spreads in national magazines.

And that old standard of sporting fame, the picture on the box of Wheaties, is even predigested, with a pool of potential candidates already signed, sealed and delivered. The winner will be revealed on the last day of the Olympics.

In this race for cash, being an American helps, since the United States is home to the most lucrative celebrity market. Ever hear of Vitaly Scherbo? He is considered history's greatest male gymnast, winner of six gold medals in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, and favored to claim a few more golds in Atlanta. But he comes from Belarus and only began speaking fluent English in the past few years. Great talent, totally unmarketable.

Yet some international athletes are able to achieve fame and fortune in their home countries. German swimmer Franzi Van Almsick won four medals in 1992, none gold, but she was so attractive and unaffected that she became a millionaire through endorsements, appearances and a workout video.

Athletes have turned their exploits into cash for decades. But it was Spitz who became the first commercial Olympian of the modern media age, returning home from Munich, West Germany, in 1972 with seven gold medals in swimming and dozens of business opportunities. He pitched products, tried out one-liners with Bob Hope and gave speeches.

"I was a pioneer, and it was like cowboys and Indians," Spitz says. "There was nobody that had come before me. Nobody to model myself after."

Spitz became overexposed and quickly faded from fame. In 1992, he had an ill-fated swimming comeback, yet still managed to find a sponsor -- a hair-care product to color his gray hair.

"When I started, if you endorsed something, people would accuse you of taking advantage of something, as if you were prostituting yourself," says Spitz, who is now in commercial real estate in California. "Today, you have situations like with Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Johnson, they make millions, and nobody says a word."

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