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Does Olympic gold light a path to riches? Not for everyone.

The perception is that gold-winning Olympians find it easy to turn success into lucrative corporate sponsorships (Gabby Douglas is already on Corn Flakes boxes). But that's the exception to the rule.

By Staff writer / August 9, 2012

This combination of photos shows United States' Michael Phelps holding each of his eight gold medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Phelps will retire after the 2012 London games and will likely turn his medal haul into a cash haul with corporate sponsorships.

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No sooner had Gabby Douglas dismounted from the podium clutching gymnastic gold, then observers began speculating on the other riches she’d be pulling in from corporate marketing deals. Her face already graced the boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and that was just the beginning.

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Every four years, it’s same the story: an athlete wins a high-profile event, and the buzz starts about the millions of dollars to be raked in from corporate sponsorship deals. For US high achievers like swimmers Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and gymnasts Aly Raisman and Ms. Douglas or their peers from other nations – here's looking at you, Usain Bolt – the Summer Olympic Games look like a financial bonanza. The fame of gold medals could be worth as much as several million dollars per year. 

But these tales of personal riches are the exception, not the rule. Of all athletes, Americans enjoy some of the richest potential for reaping income from corporate sponsorships and product endorsement deals. But the flow of money is uneven and sometimes comes with pitfalls.

Take the example of US hurdlers Lolo Jones and Dawn Harper. Their excellence is in a sport that, unlike tennis or basketball, enters the TV limelight only once every four years.

Ms. Jones has had more success with corporate sponsors than Ms. Harper, who was a gold medalist in Beijing. That contrast served as the backdrop when Jones found herself this week in a negative spotlight for the financial side of her career. A New York Times article painted Jones as an athlete whose "sad and cynical marketing campaign" has made her more visible than teammates who are better performers on the track. 

Jones, who crashed over a hurdle and out of gold contention in 2008, said she had been "ripped to shreds" by the criticism, which she called unfair. In the end, she proved to be a contender in the 100-meter hurdles, finishing fourth and just a tenth of a second out of a bronze medal. Harper again medaled – silver – while Australian Sally Pearson won gold and US teammates Kellie Wells got the bronze.

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