After the Olympic Games, Some Athletes Strike Pay Dirt
Others, however, quietly fade into the woodwork
BOSTON — When the flame was snuffed out at Atlanta's Centennial Olympics on Aug. 4, thousands of athletes faced the proverbial post-Olympic question: What now?
For some with previous competitive commitments in sports like track and field and tennis, the near-term was already booked, with the only real question being, "When does my flight leave?" For most, however, the planning and decision-making had only just begun.
Do I train for another four years in hopes of competing in Sydney's 2000 Millennial Olympic Games? Do I push back, retire, take a vacation, go to college, start training again, try to capitalize on my Olympic fame, or go to Disney World?
The 10,500 athletes who were in Atlanta have made all these choices and more.
In the United States, where Olympic fame opens doors and corporate checking accounts, gymnast Kerri Strug and Greco-Roman wrestler Matt Ghaffari have emerged as two of the most unexpected "winners" in the celebrity sweepstakes.
Strug, who won America's admiration with her courageous vault on a bum ankle, has become so recognizable she sometimes wears a wig to disguise her identity. One estimate places the worth of her Olympics-generated deals at $3 million.
Ghaffari, meanwhile, has shown off his now-familiar shaved head everywhere from the the Republican National Convention to the New York Stock Exchange.
Briana Scurry, the goalkeeper for the US women's soccer team that won the gold medal, anticipated a quick return to earth. Speaking for her teammates, some of whom eventually hope to play in a new women's pro league, she says, "I think a lot of us will go back to what we do every fall, which is coaching."
However, for Sheryl Swoopes and the other members of the gold medal-winning United States women's basketball team, it's not "business as usual."
Swoopes, (rhymes with hoops) is the apple of two new women's professional leagues - the American Basketball League (ABL) and the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). The choice, though in some ways an enviable one, isn't easy. During a recent teleconference for LIFETIME Television, which aired a special on the US team's road to the gold medal, Swoopes acknowledged as much.
When asked why she decided not to join the ABL, she replied, "I got in a situation where I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I have a choice now and I still don't think it's too late to go back to the ABL."
Possibly not, but the clock is ticking on the Oct. 18 ABL season opener. The WNBA will play a June-to-August season beginning next summer.
Swoopes, who has a sneaker named for her, and Rebecca Lobo, the 1995 College Player of the Year, are considered two of the more marketable players from the US Olympic team. Some observers expect them to become the headliners of the WNBA. "Right now my agent is still working on different contracts, talking back and forth with the ABL and WNBA," Swoopes says. "I'm sitting back and waiting to see what he thinks will be the best deal for me."
The six-foot guard eventually hopes to pursue a career in sports broadcasting.
Asked her feelings in the weeks following the Olympics, she says, "Relief that it's over. But it's also kind of depressing because we worked so hard as a team for a year just so we could go to Atlanta. I miss, and I think everyone on the team misses, the friendships we developed. We still stay in contact with each other."
Though one big, happy family during the Games, the team members have scattered since. Seven of the players, including four-time Olympian Teresa Edwards, have cast their lot with the ABL, an eight-team league in which all teams are owned by the league and the average salary is $70,000.
Edwards, who took the Olympic oath for all the athletes in Atlanta, expresses disappointment that some unidentified US teammates have reversed direction when it comes to their playing commitments.
"I think it's hurtful," she says, "that they made a choice to sign an agreement to play in this league [ABL], and in some cases actually took money for it, and then when the NBA made its announcement, all of a sudden they had a choice. For me, I didn't have a choice. When I made that agreement and said I would play in this league, I meant it."
Regarding her situation, Swoopes says she has no interest in playing in Europe, but considers the absence of a franchise in her home state of Texas a negative for the ABL. What she doesn't mention is another possible factor, namely that Reebok is a national ABL sponsor and Swoopes has a Nike endorsement.
Behind the scenes, sponsorship dollars can be influential. One athlete who claims to be unencumbered by them is Ghaffari, the hulky wrestler, who says he doesn't represent "a shoe company or a soda company." Claiming he only has to satisfy himself, the heavyweight nonetheless has managed to become a much sought-after pop figure since winning an Olympic silver medal.
His popularity may partly stem from the athletic drama that seems to captivate American spectators. The Iranian-born Ghaffari broke into tears when he narrowly lost the gold-medal match to his Russian hero, Aleksandr Karelin, who maintained an unbeaten streak that spans nine years.
Justin Huish, the gold medal-winning ponytailed archer, later would find out there's a flip side to the Olympic limelight.
Several weeks after the Games, the press reported that three years earlier he had been convicted of vandalism in California. "It was dumb of me, but all I did was spray some paint on a mailbox," Huish says. "All of a sudden I win double gold, and this comes up."
Sudden fame has not exactly been a friend to marathoner Josia Thugwane either. Upon returning to a rough coal-mining region in South Africa, the country's first black gold medalist became the target of a rumored murder plot.
His newfound wealth ($33,000 from a government-sponsored performance bonus) apparently made him a target for local criminals.
In another grim development, champion Russian swimmer Alexander Popov, who lives and trains in Australia, was stabbed during a argument with watermelon vendors in Moscow. Just last week he said he wanted to return to training as soon as possible. This incident is not known to have Olympic tie-ins.
Some Olympic track and field athletes voluntarily entered a former war zone in hopes that just like Atlanta, Sarajevo can rise from the rubble.
Swedish middle distance champion Lyudmilla Engquist was one of the Olympic stars to compete in a special meet meant to return some degree of normalcy to the war-ravaged former winter Olympic city.
Engquist held back tears driving past blocks of bombed-out houses, but came because she wanted to understand why many refugees of the region have fled to Sweden.
"Now I know," she said. "Now I want to help. I can't help alone, but I will try to do what I can. These people must believe they have not been forgotten."