By Karl Terry: CNJ columnist
Watching USA women’s downhill skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White during the Winter Olympics I had to wonder a little about motives.
You want to believe their quest is all about national pride, but in the back of the mind you think about just how much a gold medal will be worth in endorsements.
Growing up I read several books on sports checked out from the school library. One of the most memorable was one about Jim Thorpe, an American Indian athlete who excelled in numerous sports and won both the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
According to that book, and everything else I’ve ever read about Thorpe, his motive for competing was obvious to those who knew him. He loved to compete and was interested in giving his best as long as the game was fun and interesting. There might have been some national pride involved as well.
If you know Thorpe’s story, you know that all his Olympic medals were stripped from him months after the games were over when it surfaced that he had played baseball on a semi-pro team for two seasons. At that time the Olympics were strictly for amateur competitors and to compete you could not have previously received any remuneration for competing as a professional athlete.
Thorpe had received $2 per game and $35 a week in expenses for those baseball seasons, a rate that other “amateur” athletes were also receiving, but Thorpe hadn’t been savvy enough to use another name while competing for pay. His name and accomplishments were finally restored 30 years after his death.
Things have changed a bit since Thorpe’s time, now the Olympic rules say most athletes can be paid for what they do or just for their celebrity.
A Reuters story this week said that Vonn, who overcame a bad shin injury to claim gold, hauled in $3 million in endorsements last year while White, nicknamed the Flying Tomato for his flowing red hair, tops all Winter Olympic athletes at this year’s Games with $8 million earned last year. The story said their success this week will likely kick those totals even further.
In a week where the sporting world’s most successfully marketed athlete, Tiger Woods, apologized to the world for a scandalous series of extramarital affairs, I really want to believe what I saw on television was genuine.
After Vonn won her gold medal her tear ducts immediately went into overdrive, so she had me believing we could trust her to carry the USA sports standard.
White on the other hand was brash, confident and excited. His performance and drive on a snowboard seems to be guided mostly by his love for the young sport, for which he appears to be writing the instruction manual. It really looks, not unlike Thorpe, that he’s out there flying over the half-pipe for the thrill of the competition.
That is great for snowboarding and all sports.
The great Tiger Woods might just be able to draw a little inspiration from these two newcomers along with the rest of us.
No, I won’t begrudge them their turn at the endorsement trough. They’ve earned it.