Celebrating last-place finishes at the Olympics. Because they're there, and you're not.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Cashing in on the Games

My impression is that most of the people who like this site are those who are fed up by the insipid media coverage, crass commercialism, and focus on winning a gold medal to the exclusion of all else. If that sounds like you, and I suspect it does, you will almost certainly hate this very good article from last Sunday's New York Times, which looks at agents and endorsement deals in that cesspool of commercialism, U.S. women's gymnastics. The focus is on Nastasia Liukin's agent, Evan Morgenstein, as he tries to come up with sponsorship deals during a very short athletic career.
Liukin, who before this year was virtually unknown to all but devout gymnastics fans, can be seen performing aerial magic on a Visa commercial narrated solemnly by Morgan Freeman; appearing online in the AT&T blue room; touting CoverGirl makeup and Secret deodorant; and soon smiling from billboards in ensembles from Vanilla Star jeans. Morgenstein called these endorsements his effort to "help a kid achieve a dream."

The rewards of this dream can vary, from $50,000 to $100,000 per deal before the Games to possibly millions if an athlete wins gold. Gymnastics in particular is a sponsorship bonanza. Since 1984, when the gold medalist Mary Lou Retton became the first female to land on the front of a Wheaties box, women’s gymnastics has become a national obsession, inordinately popular during the Summer Games. The opportunities to make money have therefore become both vaster and far more complicated. Technology and globalization have the capacity to turn an Olympic champion into not just a Wheaties star but also a worldwide role model. "The things we’re doing with Nastia -- we’re taking her to a higher level," Morgenstein told me in mid-June. “Of course,” he added almost as an afterthought, "she still has to do well in Beijing."
I know: women's gymnastics as practised in the U.S. is nuts. So, for that matter, is women's figure skating. Both events are so appealing to a certain demographic, and as a result draw in so much money, that they've had the shit corrupted out of them. For athletes spending a decade eating pasta, this report may as well have come in from the Cassini probe: it's utterly alien to the rest of the Olympic experience, where even gold medals can be won in comparative obscurity.

This epitomizes so much of what is wrong with the Games, and why you and I are here at the back of the field, looking for something a little closer to the purported Olympic ideal.

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