Since Albertville, Ito has retired from amateur competition. She never expected to make her fortune from endorsements, since foreigners and cutesy Japanese starlets are the best vehicles for selling products in Japan. Ito has made a cake commercial and a milk commercial, and she's a spokesperson for Prince Hotels. She also skates in a Japanese ice show and, someday, would like to skate in professional competitions.
"The feeling across the country is about 50-50 these days," says Junko Hisada, a top official of the Japanese Skating Federation. "Half the people will always feel Ito failed, but the other half are proud of her. The people closest to her know all she had to go through."
Ito, 23, has also been working in Japan as a TV commentator, covering everything from sumo wrestling to volleyball to the Summer Olympics. At Barcelona she had the opportunity to view the Olympics from the other side of the microphone. "I recognized in other athletes the pressure that I'd felt," she says, "especially in gymnastics."
Kristi Yamaguchi had a very different Olympic experience. The great trick for her was convincing herself she was the underdog, despite carrying the title of reigning world champion into the Games. Yamaguchi had upset an injured Ito at the 1991 worlds in Munich. The press was happy to oblige her underdog hankerings: Nearly everyone picked Ito to finish first in Albertville, Yamaguchi to finish second. And the modest 20-year-old from Fremont, Calif., was mentally prepared to live with that result. The next Winter Games would be held in Norway in 1994, just two years away, so Yamaguchi knew she would have one more shot at a gold medal, win or lose in '92.
Not burdened by high expectations, Yamaguchi set her sights on enjoying the Games. At her parents' insistence she marched in the opening ceremonies although her figure skating competition wouldn't start for another 11 days. (Meanwhile, Ito was training in Mégève, France.) Yamaguchi stayed in the Olympic Village, went dancing with other athletes, but by the time the real partying began, it was time for her to focus on skating. "I remember thinking, This isn't fair," she says. "I want to enjoy the Olympics too."
It was a wonderful attitude to have, and it translated onto the ice. Yamaguchi's clearest memory from Albertville—more vivid than having the gold medal placed around her neck—came moments after she had finished her long program, when she was leaving the ice, waving to the crowd. The pressure, at last, was off. But, far from feeling relief, Yamaguchi experienced a sharp sense of loss. "I knew I'd done well, and I was happy for that. But I remember thinking, Is that it? This is the Olympics. You've always dreamed of it, always, your whole life. I didn't want it to be over yet."
These athletes dream of the Olympics, not the gold medal. And for good reason, since with gold medals come headaches previously unimagined. In Yamaguchi's case, after she returned home from Albertville, certain members of the business media predicted that because of her Japanese-American heritage she would never get the endorsement opportunities of previous U.S. figure skating gold medalists. At a time when Japan was being blamed for U.S. economic woes, the theorists opined, U.S. companies would shrink from an association with Yamaguchi. This was pure speculation, but it took on a life of its own. Yamaguchi, who had never felt the sting of discrimination, was suddenly being cited as a victim by prominent members of the Japanese-American community.
"At first I thought, Oh well, I never expected to have endorsements," says Yamaguchi. She had spent her whole life focused only on her skating. She didn't get in or stay in the sport for the money; she frankly never had given it much thought. "But it kept coming up so often," she says, "it began to upset me."
Post-Olympic endorsements were down for all athletes in 1992, probably due to the sluggish economy. Still, Yamaguchi did pretty well. She signed lucrative deals with Hoechst Celanese Corporation, which makes acetate fabric for fashion designers, and DuraSoft contact lenses. She has had glamorous four-page spreads inElk, Seventeen and Vogue, has made a TV commercial for DuraSoft and has done the national talk-show circuit. At times Yamaguchi felt her life was spinning out of her control. "I was pretty overwhelmed by the number of decisions I immediately had to make after the Olympics," she says. "Before, there'd been only one way: to reach my skating goals. Now there were all these different ways I could go."
Turn professional or stay amateur? Remain near her coach, Christy Ness, in Edmonton or move back to California, to be near her parents? Should she sign this deal? Or that one? "Sometimes, when I was frustrated, I'd think, Why did I have to win?" she says. "I had one free weekend the entire summer. I thought, Is this what it's going to be like the rest of my life? My dream was to be in the Olympics. I never thought about afterward." It wasn't all a grind. Yamaguchi was part of the U.S. presidential delegation to Barcelona that was headed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. She flew over on Air Force One, traveled by motorcade and was accompanied by Secret Service men. She met fellow Olympian Prince Felipe of Spain. Met Magic. Danced with Spike Lee and Evander Holyfield. It was, all in all, a lot better treatment than she had gotten as a competing athlete.