BEIJING (Reuters) - Olympic heroes Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are set to make their fortunes after Beijing but spare a thought for the winners of the other 293 gold medals.
Marketing experts only expect a handful of athletes from Beijing to be able to turn that coveted gold medal into an income for life — and, like it or not, looks counts.
U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin, 18, who was crowned all-round champion in China, and her coach-father, 1988 Soviet Olympic gold-medalist Valery Liukin, see her fame funding her for good.
“This is the time. At the end of the day it’s not just about hard work but she needs to ensure she can enjoy the rest of her life,” her father told Reuters as the publicity machine began.
Liukin’s agent Evan Morgenstein, of Premier Management Group, said the gymnast had all the factors to turn her from a top sportswoman into a celebrity — looks, personality, and a good story with her famous father and overcoming injuries to succeed.
“She’s a girly girl and perceived as America’s sweetheart ... so her future is cemented by what she had accomplished and how she is perceived,” said Morgenstein at an event organized by Visa, one of Liukin’s 15 sponsors.
“Not everybody has the story, not everybody has all the elements ... companies are calling up for her to do modeling.”
But he said despite record TV viewings for the Beijing Olympics internationally, he did not expect more sporting celebrities to emerge from Beijing than from other Games.
“What you are going to see is the people who hit are going to be explosive,” he said. “There will be more small opportunities for a lot more people but not in terms of the upper end.”
Many national teams are taking home an athlete who has done them proud but it remains to be seen if that pride lasts once the spotlight moves from Beijing to the next sports season.
Four years is a long time between Olympics.
“Only a very few will make it. They will do so by being great in the next few years, working in the media,” said Peter Walshe, global brands director at marketing researcher Millward Brown.
Some Olympians are paid by their government but their main income is via sponsorships, endorsements, and sometimes prizes.
“These athletes need to have an additional hook, a story, pursuit, or career that transcends their Olympic glory,” said David Clarke, from the USC’s Sports Business Institute.
Some Olympians arrived in Beijing already with a brand.
Russia’s striking pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, 26, the world record holder, had a contract with Toshiba before Beijing estimated to be worth around $1.2 million. She won gold.
Australia’s photogenic swimmer Stephanie Rice, 20, winner of three golds, starred in an underwear ad with ex-boyfriend, fellow swimmer Eamon Sullivan, before Beijing and was quickly fronting Australian magazines, dubbed “our million dollar water babe.”
U.S. swimmer Amanda Beard did not take home a medal but she has used modelling to launch a career outside the Olympics.
Others leave with the chance to build a brand such as Britain’s swimmer Rebecca Adlington and cyclist Chris Hoy with plenty of marketing chances before the 2012 London Olympics.
U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, 41, and British marathon runner Paula Radcliffe, 34, have huge appeal with women aged over 30.
Marketing experts said it did also depend on the nationality of the athlete and the sport, with three categories.
There are sports like tennis, basketball and soccer which have rich sources of income year-round and many millionaires.
Then there are sports tied to the Olympics that appeal to TV viewers — and sponsors — like swimming, track and gymnastics.
Finally come sports the public largely disregard no matter the success like weightlifting and greco-roman wrestling.
“The Olympics may well be a door opener to the future but success relies on offering something distinctive ... Just being an Olympian is no guarantee,” said Walshe.
No need to tell that to athletes heading home to mundane jobs that let them fund their passion — sport.
U.S. men’s doubles badminton player, Howard Bach, who has a business degree, struggles to make a living from badminton.
“I didn’t win much last year ... like $20,000,” he said. “I’m working part time at the Home Depot. I’m just a cashier.”
(Additional reporting by Jon Ruwitch; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)