Fanfare for the Uncommon Athlete

This Olympic year, for the first time, disabled athletes are scoring major endorsement deals with Visa, Reebok, and McDonald's, among others

In a Visa (V) commercial that started airing on May 29, Cheri Blauwet flies down a road, her face creased with concentration. In the voiceover, Morgan Freeman praises her as a "heat-seeking, coming-through, athlete." It's a typical marriage of sports hero and corporate sponsor, with one key difference: Blauwet does her racing in a wheelchair.

Winner of multiple marathons—and a fifth-year medical student at Stanford University to boot—Blauwet takes understandable pleasure in the ad, but not because it's all about Cheri. Ad industry observers believe the TV spot is the first to showcase a female U.S. Paralympian. "What makes me proud is that it's groundbreaking," Blauwet says of the Visa exposure. Adds Antonio Lucio, Visa's chief marketing officer: "The person we decided to feature is not just a Paralympic athlete but an incredible female role model."

Not long ago, disabled athletes trained relentlessly and won gold medals but rarely hooked high-profile endorsement deals. That's changing. In the run-up to the Paralympics, the Olympic Games for disabled athletes that begin in Beijing on Sept. 6, they've been pitching everything from room service to running shoes. Order a soda at McDonald's, (MCD) and the cup might feature a photo of Marlon Shirley, a below-the-knee amputee and one of the world's fastest disabled sprinters. On Hilton Hotels' (HLT) Web site, athletes Tatyana McFadden, a wheelchair-racing juggernaut, and discus champ Carlos Leon talk about the sweat and payoffs of being an elite disabled athlete. Nike (NKE), Reebok, and the Hartford (HiG) have deals with Paralympians this year.

While Blauwet was a pioneer, signing with Visa in 2004 to wear its logo, many other deals are of recent vintage, including McFadden's deals with McDonald's and Hilton, both inked in 2008. So far the money is relatively modest: Deals with national brands range from a base of $20,000 a year to $70,000, with bonuses for making the Paralympic team and winning medals. The top Paralympians now earn $100,000-plus from endorsements, which covers the cost of competing and a bit extra. Just paying expenses, for these athletes, is a milestone in itself.

Disabled athletes, of course, still face many hurdles. Media coverage of the Paralympics is scant, and confusion about the event is abundant. M. Quentin Williams, the lawyer for Josh George, a top wheelchair racer, says part of his job is explaining to potential sponsors that the Paralympics are not the Special Olympics, the competition for the mentally disabled. And many companies "still have it in their mind that disabled means unable," laments Deborah McFadden, mother of Tatyana.

But those attitudes are fading. Deals with Paralympians give companies "a terrific person and a feel-good story," says Jeff Bliss, president of sports marketing firm Javelin Group and former head of Olympic partnerships at Sara Lee (SLE). "The thinking is: We might get a better return than if we hired another flashy gold medalist."

There's no doubt the stories of these endorsers are compelling. Leon, an Iraq War veteran, was injured in a freak diving accident while on leave from the Marines. Blauwet suffered her disabling injury before she turned 2 on her parents' Iowa farm. But for inspiring comebacks, it's tough to match McFadden, who was born with spina bifida. At age 6 she was languishing in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia, when Deborah McFadden, a disabilities advocate, visited one day. She adopted the girl and brought her home to Maryland. Thirteen years later, Tatyana holds four U.S. records and the world record in her division at 100 meters. "When I adopted her she was a scrawny little thing," says Deborah. Now? Mom shoots a loving glance at her daughter, decked out in her Hilton polo shirt, and says: "Look at those muscles."

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