I didn't know what the olympics was going to do for me if I won," Peggy Fleming is saying. "I didn't have any real grip on the magnitude of it. When the whole thing finally happened, well, it was pretty awesome. I still deal with that. It's not something that goes away.
"I thought I'd have a career of maybe four years, performing in one of the ice shows. Then the next Olympic champion would take over that role. When that didn't happen, I just kept plowing ahead. I'm very appreciative of the career I've had. Really. I just never dreamed it would go on this long."
She has been staring at a log burning in the fireplace, and now she looks up. "Twenty years is a long time to remember someone, isn't it?" she says.
Fleming laughs. She is 39 now and hasn't put on a pair of skates in more than a year. But she will always have a career, she is reminded, because she will always be Peggy Fleming.
January 27, 1988
She considers this for a moment. "You mean I have to do this forever?" she says finally.
Fleming skated into America's living room in 1968, eased herself into a sit-spin on our collective imagination and never left. At a time of turmoil on college campuses and in the cities, she somehow managed to make figure skating matter deeply. Can anyone who lived through Dick Button's description of her compulsory school figures ever forget the terror of that event? When she came home with gold from the Games in Grenoble, Fleming signed a contract with the Ice Follies, and then in a succession of shows over the years proceeded to prove that her name on the marquee usually guaranteed a full house. Had she stumbled at Grenoble and brought home a bronze, Fleming probably would have been forgotten. It would have been a costly failure, for she's reportedly earned more than $1 million a year since 1968.
Probably the first Olympic champion to convert gold medals into a personal fortune was Norway's Sonja Henie, who won the figure skating gold in 1928 at St. Moritz, in 1932 at Lake Placid and in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Adolf Hitler presented Henie with her last gold medal, as well as a huge picture of himself.
By the time Hitler had invaded Henie's homeland four years later, she was in Hollywood, where she became the object of a spirited studio bidding war. Producer Darryl Zanuck eventually prevailed upon Henie to sign a $300,000 contract with Twentieth Century Fox. "I've signed Miss Henie and her skates." Zanuck said. "Even if she couldn't skate I'd have signed her anyway, but not for so much money."
In such rickety star vehicles as One in a Million and Happy Landing, Henie became the third-leading attraction in the movies, her box office power exceeded only by that of Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. Put that together with her phenomenally successful ice shows, and Henie was, according to the New York World-Telegram sports columnist Joe Williams, "undoubtedly the biggest individual draw sports ever produced."
Popularity of that magnitude is not conferred upon the merely talented, and it is rarely sustained by the merely greedy. One former Olympic medalist who went on to have a lengthy career as a product endorser cites gymnast Mary Lou Retton as an example of a gold medal winner who couldn't resist the lure of quick money and finally burned herself out. "Mary Lou got involved with good products." says the Olympian, who prefers to remain unnamed, "but if you're thinking in terms of longevity, you lose credibility if you get associated with too many different things. People think you're just doing it for the money."
Mark Spitz, who won seven swimming gold medals at the '72 Games in Munich, came across on TV as such a loutish airhead out of the water that after a brief run of major product endorsements, he more or less dropped out of sight. "He cared about himself, but he didn't care about his public, and it came through," says Suzy Chaffee, the former U.S. ski team captain. "It was me, me, me, and the public tires of that."
Occasionally the public is ready to embrace an Olympic hero, only to discover he doesn't want to be embraced. When speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals at Lake Placid in 1980, the hype machinery was poised to shape him into a marketable commodity and sell him like a bar of soap. But Heiden had seen the way Spitz and decathlon champion Bruce Jenner had cashed in. and he didn't want any part of it.
"I felt embarrassed for them sometimes," Heiden has said. "As an athlete I saw sports as a form of recreation and not as a tool to completely sell yourself commercially." Heiden turned down a million-dollar offer to have his picture on the Wheaties box because he thought it would cost him too much of his privacy. "I don't know many people in the Olympic situation who have turned down very much money," says Art Kaminsky, who represents Heiden. "Eric could have made a lot more money than he has, but we try to stretch it for the long haul. That's why we're very selective about what he does." That strategy, Kaminsky says, has still earned Heiden seven figures, while allowing him time to ride on the international cycling circuit and attend Stanford Medical School, where he is working toward a medical degree.
Heiden realized that if he completely sold himself off for cash, people would expect too much of him every time he appeared in public. "It means so much to people for you to be nice," says Fleming. "So you do that, and then when it all gets to be too much, you can close the door and just scream."
Fleming has recently been hired as a "public spokesperson" for the National Pork Producers Council, which is currently engaged in a celebrity range war with the beef industry and its spokesperson, Cybill Shepherd, whom the pork forces dismiss as a "sex goddess." Fleming insists she did a careful analysis of the NPPC to be sure its image was "up to my standards." rather than put her name on a pig in a poke.
"A lot of athletes think that after the Olympics are over they're going to come into a lot of easy money," Fleming says. "But they aren't. It's hard work. A gold medal is a foot in the door, but it's no guarantee. None at all."
When Bill Johnson won the gold medal in the Olympic downhill at Sarajevo in 1984, the world press gathered around him and asked what this historic occasion meant to him. Johnson considered the question for a moment, then replied, "Millions. We're talking millions."
Johnson, of course, has had to live that remark down. "I'd be surprised if he made thousands," says Kaminsky. "I've never seen a Bill Johnson ad. Have you? Has anybody?"
Johnson has been pilloried for making his cupidity so public—handicapping financial windfalls is a time-honored tradition within the fortified walls of the Olympic Village—but the truly surprising aspect of his boast is that he didn't make good on it. "He had an excellent opportunity to capitalize on that [gold medal], an incredible opportunity," says Billy Kidd, whose silver in the '64 slalom at Innsbruck was the first Alpine medal ever won by an American man. "Don't forget, Phil Mahre won a gold medal in that Olympics, too, but it was Bill Johnson who captured the imagination of the American public. He was brash, he predicted and he produced. And people loved that. What hurt him was that he didn't have the results after that, and he lost credibility. The things that got him the most attention from the media were exactly the kinds of things most companies don't want associated with their product."
Johnson probably could have had his millions, even if he had spent the rest of his life only endorsing skis and long underwear, but he combined arrogance, naked greed and poor results—one of your less attractive combos—and found his career going downhill a good deal faster than his skis. "It was definitely worth a million dollars to him," says Canada's Nancy Greene, winner of the gold medal in the giant slalom at Grenoble in 1968, "but he blew it."
Greene and Kidd were both determined not to blow it when they won their medals, but as Kidd says, "There's nothing more quickly forgotten than a sports hero." What made Kidd special was that he was the first American skiing hero (teammate Jimmie Heuga won the bronze medal in the same race that day) at a time when the country was starving for one. Kidd didn't mind boosting the sport if his net worth got a little jolt in return. "Billy said to me after the Olympics he wanted to make his million dollars and retire to Steamboat," says Chaffee. "He felt he had paid his dues and now he wanted what was owed him." The trick was figuring how best to exploit the value of his medal without making himself appear grasping—a neat trick. "Athletes have phenomenally short careers and they work bloody hard," says Greene, "so when you come to the end, the temptation is to sell out. But which is better? Making $50,000 a year for 50 years, or $250,000 for three years? If you take the fast money, everybody says you've sold out, you don't feel fulfilled, and they don't want you anymore."
Greene had a chance to win three gold medals in 1968, but fell during a downhill run a month before the Games and tore ligaments in her ankle. She settled for a silver in the slalom but won her gold medal run by 2.64 seconds, still the largest winning margin for a women's giant slalom in Olympic history. She came home a heroine and had dinner with the Queen of England, but as Greene herself admits 20 years later, the thing she is probably best known for in Canada is a series of TV commercials she did for Mars bars. "They were so bad," she says. "I'm sure most people thought, Oh God, we'd better buy Mars bars, or she's going to get fired." Whatever the reason, within a month Greene's commercials had lifted Mars from nowhere to fourth on Canada's candy sales charts.
"The philosophy I took," says Greene, "is you never sell your name. If you really believe in something and then people want to pay you for that, that's lovely. But if you fall for all the pitchmen and you sell your name, after a few years you're not going to have a name anymore."
Greene didn't want to sell her name, but that's not to say she didn't want to sell any names. When she and her husband, Al Raine, opened a hotel in Whistler, B.C., two years ago, they decided to name it Nancy Greene's Olympic Lodge and use the five-ring Olympic logo in their decor. Greene sent the Canadian Olympic Association notice of her plans, and in return received a warning that not only was she not to use the rings, but also she couldn't use the word Olympic in the name of her hotel. "They said you shouldn't commercialize the Olympics," Greene says, "and I said it's nothing but commercialized now. Every major corporation in the world has its name on the Olympics, why shouldn't a former Olympian?" So Greene appealed to the organizers of the Calgary Games and got permission to use the word "Olympic."
Just as Greene has chosen to make her stand at the foot of Whistler Mountain—where skiers know if they stay at her lodge they can count on skiing with a former Olympic champion—Billy Kidd decided to try to make his name synonymous with Steamboat Springs, Colo. Short, balding and bespectacled, Kidd hardly fit the image of the dashing ski hero, so he bought himself a Stetson cowboy hat—which he wears constantly, on and off the slopes—as a way of making himself more recognizable. Now when people come to Steamboat, they look for that hat so they can tell people they skied with Billy Kidd. "That hat is going to put my kids through college," Kidd says.
Kidd adopted a philosophy of making only long-term deals with companies that wanted him for endorsements. "I'm very particular about the products I'll represent," he says. "I've turned down a lot of deals for a lot of money because they would have meant short-term money but a long-term loss of credibility."
"Billy's been able to keep his name in front of the public all these years," says Steamboat public relations man Rod Hanna, "when other athletes whose accomplishments far exceeded his have faded from the scene."
That, of course, is what it's all about when you're going for the post-Olympic gold. "I don't think of this as a career," says Kidd, who, 24 years after the fact, is still probably better known than any skier on the U.S. team in Calgary. "It's just something I happened into that seems to keep perpetuating itself. To tell you the truth, when they ask for my occupation on passport applications, I still don't know what to put. What exactly is it I am?"
Sometimes it's not so much what you are as what you were that counts.