How many of America’s Sochi Olympic champions can you name right now? Maybe the figure skaters and perhaps an alpine skier or two. If your city produced a champion, that name will certainly be familiar. But for the most part, the identities of gold medal winners at the Olympic Winter Games are quickly evaporating into the ether. And with it often goes their opportunity to cash in on their accomplishments.
Unlike Olympians, most professional athletes appear in newspapers and on our screens many times each week, many months a year. We are repeatedly reminded of their skills and personal lives. Most Olympians do not enjoy the benefits of such relentless exposure. For us, we have a two-week window every four years to try to become household names.
With the exception of basketball, ice hockey and tennis, most Olympians participate in sports with which most Americans are basically unfamiliar. Who among us ever glided down a luge run, sailed off a ski jump or even skated around an ice oval, racing the clock or landing a combination of triple twisting jumps? Can you even define an Axel, a Salkow or a “Double McTwist 1260”? Other than endurance, can you describe what makes a good Nordic skier?
My point is that for the most part winning an Olympic gold medal is something magical for the athlete, but something temporary for the audience. That’s why Olympians do everything possible to maximize their exposure and increase earning potential immediately after the Games.
Let’s face facts: The skills demonstrated in Olympic competition are undervalued in the world at large. The ability to swim quickly while on your back, the ability to throw a 16-pound weight across the room, the ability to pull hard on an oar, are not activities most people are willing to pay to see. I doubt most Americans know the current world records for any of those activities, even within a margin of 10 percent.
So, why are Olympic champions considered such heroes to the country? It used to be because Olympic competition was the closest thing we had to international combat. When the U.S. hockey team defeated the Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y. in 1980, it felt like we defeated communism. Remember, at the time inflation was around 15 percent, unemployment was climbing above 8 percent, gasoline was rationed and American citizens were being held captive in Iran. As a nation, we felt impotent. But when the U.S. took to the ice, we felt like a part of the team.
The best-remembered Olympic athletes are not those who excelled, but rather those who triumphed over adversity. Those stories remain with us years later. Jesse Owens won races (as did I), but unlike me, he also shattered the myth of Aryan superiority. Nadia Comaneci at her best would be hard-pressed to reach the podium against today’s gymnasts, but her “perfect 10” is impossible to forget. Mark Spitz earned seven gold medals, but he also was of Jewish descent at the Games where the entire Israeli Olympic team was killed by terrorists. In 1960, Wilma Rudolph won three track gold medals (as did many others since), but she was also known for overcoming polio on her road to glory. Dara Torres was a great swimmer and earned a spot on five Olympic teams, but never earned a single individual gold medal. When she earned her 12th medal (a silver) as a 42 year-old mother in a sport dominated by teenagers, she sealed her stellar reputation for all time.
Americans love winners, but we love good stories even more.
I challenge you to name three Americans whose best Olympic result was a silver medal. If you are like most folks, you probably came up with one name only, the protagonist of the biggest of all Olympic stories: the figure skater, Nancy Kerrigan.
Swimmer John Naber earned four golds and a silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and the following year he led the USC Trojans to their fourth undefeated season and won the James E. Sullivan Award as the nation’s outstanding amateur athlete. Naber is also a sports broadcaster, published author, and corporate inspirational speaker, and is enshrined in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Bio