For two weeks every four years, usually in some remote, obscure mountain town, the world's best wintertime athletes gather for the Winter Olympics. Over the course of the fortnight, cold-weather-sports enthusiasts across the globe tune into almost round-the-clock TV coverage to cheer on their country's Olympians. When a fellow national wins a medal, patriotism skyrockets and hometowns throw ticker-tape parades. The glory, it seems, will never fade away.
Then the snow melts. The Olympic torch is extinguished. The two weeks are up, and it will be another four years before most of these athletes are back in the spotlight, while many are never heard from again, at least on the world stage. (Quick, can you name the gold medal winner in women's luge at the 2006 Turin Olympics? Answer below.)
Therein lies the predicament. With so few opportunities to compete on an international stage, not to mention the frequent meddling of Mother Nature, Winter Olympians find it tough to stay relevant more than athletes of arguably any other sport.
And if we've learned anything by now, that relevance is what leads to coveted endorsement dollars.
U.S. Olympic Heroes
Unsurprisingly, the American trio that entered Vancouver with the most fanfare—Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn, and Apolo Anton Ohno—will likely leave the Games with the fattest pockets, too. While all three competitors should benefit from striking Olympic Gold, their inherent advantage over other U.S. medalists actually results from pre-Vancouver accomplishments.
With a clothing line at Target (TGT) and a signature video game from Ubisoft (UBI:FP), White followed up his 2006 Winter Olympic success with medals at the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 Winter X-Games. The "Flying Tomato" is synonymous with extreme sports.
Nearly as recognizable as White's shaggy red hair is Ohno's soul patch. Sure, Ohno won three medals at Turin in 2006, but when he decided to hang up his ice skates for dance shoes, Ohno turned up where countless other C-list celebrities have been before: Dancing with the Stars.
The preeminent female Olympian, Vonn's Sports Illustrated photo spread could catapult her into the elite of such influential women athletes as Serena and Venus Williams, the only two women who reached the top 50 of our Power 100 rankings released last month. Those rankings were determined by an athlete's performance on and off the field. (Though we bet Vonn will make it onto the Power 100 next year.)
As for the off-field success of other U.S. gold medalists, including snowboarder Seth Wescott and figure skater Evan Lysacek, the odds are stacked against them. Though it's not entirely impossible for them to land big-time sponsorship and endorsement deals, it's much more likely that new apparel and equipment contracts will be as good as it gets for these Vancouver afterthoughts.
It's not Wescott's or Lysacek's fault that endorsement deals are hard to come by. Blame it on an opportunity that's as rare as a snowfall in May. And the gold medalist for women's singles luge at Turin? Germany's Sylke Otto, who is now retired.
Click here to see the most powerful Olympic athletes.
Who are the 100 most powerful athletes on and off the field? Click here to see the 2010 Bloomberg BusinessWeek Power 100.