Each Olympic Games brings an opportunity for an athlete toiling in relative obscurity to become a pop-culture phenom, with his or her achievements potentially translating into appearances on everything from Wheaties boxes to “Saturday Night Live.”
As they march in the Opening Ceremonies for the London Olympics tonight, such U.S. competitors as Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Claressa Shields, Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Lolo Jones, Allyson Felix and Ashton Eaton could be on their way to a breakout two weeks that would mean more than just gold medals — while also fueling broadcaster NBC’s hopes for the kind of buzz that drives viewership.
“America is captivated with celebrity,” IMG Consulting senior veep and managing director David Abrutyn told Variety, “and the size of the audience of the Olympic Games and the number of casual sport fans that tune in really do make for sort of overnight success stories.”
In the current era, stars-in-the-making generally come to the Games with representation from agents in the sports world (and sometimes entertainment as well), but the potential explosion for post-Olympic opportunities is huge. The heady perk of competing is magnified by the ability to use social media as a platform for fame.
For the athletes, the recognition can be critical in a world where they make more money from endorsements than from everyday competition (with such exceptions as the NBA stars who form the U.S. men’s basketball team). Record-setting swimmer Michael Phelps is the latest and boldest example of a phenomenon that includes past Olympians Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Jenner and Cathy Rigby.
After Phelps won six golds at Athens in 2004, his corporate endorsement earnings swelled to an estimated $5 million annually. Then, upon winning a record eight gold medals at Beijing in 2008, Phelps became practically ubiquitous, with deals ranging from Kellogg’s to Hewlett-Packard that put him on track to pass the $100 million mark in lifetime endorsement revenue, not to mention gigs on “SNL” and “Entourage.”
A photo of him using recreational drugs and a DUI arrest slowed Phelps’ revenue rise, with Kellogg’s ending its relationship with the swimmer, but even after that, his star power yielded new pacts, including those with Procter & Gamble and Under Armour.
“Part of what makes marketing superstars is sustained greatness over an extended period of time,” Abrutyn said. “In Michael Phelps’ case, the amount of attention that he got coming out of Beijing (resulted from) a build over several years to the ultimate accomplishment.
“There were a number of things that aligned to have Michael Phelps become what Michael Phelps has become. … But there are opportunities for others to move into that arena, and the Olympics provide that platform.”
Phelps himself could serve as a platform for one of those potential overnight celebrities. The swimming great is returning to this year’s Olympiad to compete in seven events — but against a rising rival in Lochte, a 6-foot-2 multiple world champion who turns 28 during the Games.
Lochte’s showdown with Phelps at the U.S. Olympic swim trials in June wowed onlookers and served as a prelude to what could become the marquee event of London, not to mention NBC’s primetime coverage.
“It could be the Games of the ‘coup mounters,’?” Sports Illustrated columnist Alexander Wolff told Variety, “if (track star) Usain Bolt and Phelps are overtaken by countrymen — in Bolt’s case, Yohan Blake, and in Phelps’ case, Lochte. Each is within striking distance of outmedaling the guy who was a king of Beijing, and both are likable and photogenic.”
Abrutyn added that Lochte “is known for his personality — he’s a little bit of a free spirit — and there are companies that like to associate with that because it helps break through the cluttered ad market.”
The female counterpart to Lochte is 6-foot-1, 17-year-old Franklin, an effervescent Colorado high schooler whom many predict will become the first to medal in seven women’s swimming events.
Another potential Olympic breakout teenager to be considered is the 17-year-old Shields, who is not only competing in the inaugural Olympic women’s boxing medal competition but is the youngest U.S. boxer in four decades. Despite fighting at a reported 11 pounds below the middleweight limit of 165, Shields is a gold-medal favorite.
Women’s gymnastics is always one of the most popular sports at the Olympics, with Rigby, Olga Korbut, Nadia Comaneci and Kerri Strug among the champions whose names that resonate years later. At the forefront of what analysts have said is the most promising U.S. team in the sport are 17-year-old Wieber and 15-year-old Douglas.
Wieber won the world all-around title in 2011 and brings a level of poise and experience to London that belies her age. Douglas, who comes with the nickname “the Flying Squirrel,” then bested Wieber at this summer’s U.S. trials.
The breakout star of summer might have been Jones, the hurdler who set the social media world ablaze after an HBO interview in which she discussed her virginity. “Harder than training for the Olympics, harder than graduating from college (has been) staying a virgin until marriage,” said Jones, who turns 30 on Aug. 5.
And Jones brings her own potential redemption story. At Beijing in 2008, she was a favorite in the 100-meter hurdles before stumbling on the second-to-last obstacle. Attention on Jones could also radiate toward U.S. teammate Dawn Harper, the defending gold medalist in the race.
If not Jones or Harper, Los Angeles native Felix could become the next big thing. A 26-year-old who signed her first endorsement deal in 2003, Felix is a frequent gold medalist at the world championships but hasn’t won an individual competition in two previous Olympiads.
Felix’s specialty is the 200 meters, but it’s the 100 that has given her quest an added punch. In this year’s Olympic trials, she and Jeneba Tarmoh tied for the final spot on the U.S. team in that event, to the point that a photo finish couldn’t separate them — the prologue to an ultimately controversial outcome that handed that slot to Felix.
On the men’s side for the 100 meters, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay will try to wrest the title of world’s fastest man from Bolt, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist who is believed to be vulnerable this time around.
Meanwhile, the current claimant to the title of “world’s greatest athlete” — not that the average citizen knows much about him yet — is 24-year-old Eaton, who broke the 11-year-old world record for the decathlon in June. American decathletes have always had star potential, most notably Bruce Jenner in 1976, but manufacturing interest prior to a gold medal is risky: Witness the ill-fated “Dan and Dave” Reebok campaign prior to the ’92 Games, which featured top U.S. contenders Dan O’Brien (who failed to qualify for the American team) and Dave Johnson (who finished with a bronze).
O’Brien won gold in the 1996 Olympics at Atlanta, but his star moment had passed, showing that the key to becoming a cultural phenom isn’t only winning but also timing.