Tale of 2 ankles has capital plot Women: Thanks to TV, gymnast Kerri Strug will reap riches from injury

not so for soccer's Mia Hamm.

Atlanta Olympics

August 04, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- The two scenes, played out nine days and some 90 miles apart, were remarkably similar: a young American female athlete nearly knocked out by an injury, only to shake off the pain and lead her team to a gold medal in the Olympics.

Both gymnast Kerri Strug and soccer player Mia Hamm suffered sprained ankles, and both had to be helped to the medals ceremony by their teammates and coaches.

But the image of Strug will be forever etched into the lore of the Centennial Olympics, while Hamm's moments of struggle and conquest are barely remembered days after they happened.

When the 16-day competition officially ends tonight at Olympic Stadium, Strug will leave as the country's newest star, starting the process of turning her sudden celebrity status into a whirlwind of publicity and a rush of commercial endorsements that her new agent predicts will be worth millions of dollars. Hamm will limp out of here with a gold medal and a sore ankle.

The reason is simple: television exposure.

These might have been billed as the women's Olympics, but a 4-foot-7 gymnast with a high-pitched voice and a heretofore nondescript personality will be the biggest winner. Bigger than Hamm, considered by many the most marketable player on the women's soccer team. Bigger than Amy Van Dyken, the 6-foot swimmer with the freckly face and the four gold medals. Even bigger than Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who might be the greatest female athlete of her generation.

"It all depends on what happens six months afterwards," said Joyner-Kersee, who, at 34 and in her fourth and final Olympics, managed to pull out a bronze medal in the long jump despite a badly strained hamstring. "We need to support one another. Mia and I can't look at a Kerri Strug with envy. You can't take anything away from Kerri. She deserves everything she gets."

And, apparently, the 18-year-old from Tucson, Ariz., will be getting quite a lot. Her picture on a set of Wheaties boxes would be only the beginning of what her agent, Leigh Steinberg, called "boundless" commercial opportunities.

Though Steinberg wouldn't go as far as Joe Douglas did at the 1984 Olympics, when he predicted that his star attraction, Carl Lewis, would be bigger than Michael Jackson, the feeling here is that Steinberg will try to make Strug as big, if not bigger, than Mary Lou Retton became after the 1984 Games.

The comparisons with Retton, who turned a perfect 10 in the vault into a reported $10 million in the bank, began the moment Strug landed on two feet, hopped on her one healthy leg and helped the U.S. women's gymnastics team win its first gold medal. Strug, who has become more visible than even sprinter Michael Johnson, has said even she has gotten caught up in the hysteria.

"For me, this is like a dream come true," Strug said Friday at a news conference to announce that she was forgoing her scholarship at UCLA and, by the way, signing with Steinberg.

"When I was 6 years old, I watched Mary Lou Retton become the star of America. I always wanted to do that, but never thought it would become a reality.

"It kind of slapped me right in the face here at the Games, showing me that anything can happen," said Strug, yesterday named co-winner of the Olympic Spirit award with Lewis. "My goal right now is to be a role model for the little girls out there."

There were plenty of other female role models performing here the past three weeks, from Van Dyken in swimming to Dominique Dawes in gymnastics, from Hamm in soccer to gold medalist Lindsay Davenport in tennis, from gold medalist Kim Rhode in double trap shooting to Lisa Leslie, who hopes to lead the U.S. basketball team to a gold medal tonight when it plays Brazil in the last athletic event of the 1996 Games.

Most didn't come to the Olympics expecting to become rich and famous. Even those who become famous don't always become rich.

"It depends on fitting into the creative plan of a company," said Joyner-Kersee, whose picture has been plastered on billboards across the city. "There's no guarantee that's going to happen. People leave here depressed, wondering why companies are not calling them. I'm very happy for Kerri Strug, but that's more the exception than the rule."

For those looking to see who capitalizes most on their success in the Games, there is no need to look further than Strug and her fellow gymnasts. The women's soccer team will have its own Nike-sponsored victory tour later this year, but the women's gymnastics team already has doubled its pre-planned post-Olympic tour to 60 cities.

Sue Levin, Nike's manager for women's sports marketing, said that, in immediate marketability, the equation going into the 1996 Olympics isn't much different coming out. The athletes whose events received the most television coverage -- the gymnasts, swimmers and track and field stars, as well as those in beach volleyball, NBC's sport du jour -- stand to gain the most.

Hamm, 24, was asked Friday about having approximately the same injury as Strug but having little to show for it.

Hamm declined to look at it personally, preferring to think about what 79,000 fans squeezed inside Sanford Stadium will do for recreational leagues around the country.

"I think it's going to do nothing but help us," she said.

Strug was asked an hour earlier what her performance showed.

"That winning isn't everything," she said.

It wasn't, but it helped. And so did injuring an ankle in front of millions of people.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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