From 'Hunger Games' to 'Call Me Maybe,' how athletes sell Olympic sports (+video)

Athletes at the London Games don't just have to be world class, they often have to be salesmen for sports that slip into obscurity after the Olympics are over. 

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama uses a light saber to 'fence' with Tim Morehouse, who won a silver medal in men's team saber at the Beijing Olympics, ahead of Mr. Obama's trip to Denmark to lobby on behalf of Chicago for the 2016 Olympics in this 2009 file photo.
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Tim Morehouse recognizes that most of America doesn't care about his sport. He just refuses to accept it. 

To say that Morehouse is a fencer is vast understatement. He is nothing less than a zealot of his sport – a man whose silver in the men's team saber in Beijing gives only the smallest indication of what he is to fencing in America. In the five-ring circus that is the Olympics, Morehouse is the P.T. Barnum of the fencing piste.  

He has written a biography titled (of course) "American Fencer," which is really more about how totally awesome fencing is than about Morehouse himself. He wants to write another book on the history of American fencing, enthusing to the media with the hint of a suggestion: Did you know The New York Times had a fencing beat writer in the 1920s?

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Before coming to London, he fenced Boston Mayor Tom Menino at a Olympic sendoff event, successfully winning the promise: "You win the gold medal, I’ll have a party for you in the city of Boston, at City Hall Plaza." Then he went to New York, where he ran the fencing tournament he singlehandedly conceived and created, and which received national television coverage and sold out 2,500 tickets at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York.

Well, there won't be a party on Boston's City Hall Plaza. Morehouse fell in the quarterfinals of the men's individual saber in London Sunday, though he'll get another shot at a medal in the team competition Friday.   

Morehouse's story of salesmanship is a familiar one to most Olympic athletes, who are really more than athletes. They are pitchmen and missionaries, athletic Don Quixotes who tilt against the windmills of American indifference. They make YouTube videos they hope will go viral, they do nationwide tours, they drop by gym classes at local elementary schools – all in the hope that, one day, their sport might not once again slip into obscurity the moment the Olympic flame is extinguished. 

Swimmers go viral on YouTube

Consider: In 2004, fresh off a six-gold-medal performance in Athens, Michael Phelps headlined Disney's Swim With the Stars, an eight-stop tour to help teach young kids. In non-Olympic years, USA Swimming holds a "Duel in the Pool" meet to try to keep Americans engaged. And this year, before the London Games, the members of the US swim team made a YouTube video of them lip-syncing "Call Me Maybe," saying, "We’re going to make it viral," according to USA Today. (See video at end of story.) 

And this is swimming, America's glamor sport at Summer Olympics. If Michael Phelps can't make Americans pay more attention to swimming than to the National Football League waiver wire, then what hope do other sports have?

If archery is any indication, perhaps they could try to bribe Hollywood.

For years, US archery has done the outreach thing: demonstrations at San Diego Padres baseball games, clinics for kids in local schools, and so on. Then, in an Olympic year, Hollywood fired off three blockbusters with main characters who are archers – "The Hunger Games," "Brave," and "The Avengers" – and archery suddenly had the publicity that only Hollywood's billions could buy.

Lionsgate, the film studio behind "The Hunger Games," brought in the US archery team for a photo shoot connected with the DVD release, and Disney/Pixar offered a special advance screening of "Brave" at an archery event in Utah.

Archery sees a surge

Even before the Olympics, at which the US has already won one medal and could win more, membership in USA Archery was up 20 percent from December. The surge is coming largely from youths and teenagers. In 2001, the USA Archery national championships had 171 participants in its youth divisions. This year, it had 357. 

Morehouse, however, has no hope of Katniss Everdeen becoming a fencer in the "Hunger Games" sequels, so he has his own Hollywood dreams. "I have a dream where someone will go crazy on the subway, and I'll outduel him and save everyone on the train," he said with a broad grin at a media summit in May.

Until that happy moment, Morehouse is concentrating on other steps to promote fencing – ones that might make dueling a crazed madman on the New York subway seem easy by comparison. They involve involve a lot of meetings with marketers and potential corporate sponsors for his Fencing Masters tournament.

They also involve a lot of patience.

"I hear 'no' more than I hear 'yes,' " he said. "But there's a method to doing this – just like being an Olympian."

And as in training for the Olympics, that means not giving up. His measure of victory? He's increasingly hearing "no" from people farther up the corporate food chain. And he's having fun. 

"I like the production of how to make fencing look good on TV," he said.

Train first, promote second

For some Olympians, the process of being both world-class athlete and carnival hucksters can be wearing.

"I want to be an ambassador for the sport – I do enjoy doing that," said archer Brady Ellison, a gold-medal favorite in the individual event Friday, at a press conference. "But there's a fine line between promoting and still being able to train at a level where I'm able to shoot like I need to."

Yet for Morehouse, selling fencing has become as much a passion as fencing itself. Ahead of the London Games, he reached out to Queen Elizabeth's official duelist (yes, she has one), hoping the gentleman could take some part in the ceremonies. (He can't.) He knows Mark Zuckerberg was once a fencer and has reach out to him, too. He even lets TSA agents try on his mask for fun at customs.

"I can do something bigger," he said. "I want to get millions of kids fencing in my lifetime."

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