Mark Spitz, who won seven swimming gold medals at the '72 Games in Munich, came across on TV as such a loutish airhead out of the water that after a brief run of major product endorsements, he more or less dropped out of sight. "He cared about himself, but he didn't care about his public, and it came through," says Suzy Chaffee, the former U.S. ski team captain. "It was me, me, me, and the public tires of that."
Occasionally the public is ready to embrace an Olympic hero, only to discover he doesn't want to be embraced. When speed skater Eric Heiden won five gold medals at Lake Placid in 1980, the hype machinery was poised to shape him into a marketable commodity and sell him like a bar of soap. But Heiden had seen the way Spitz and decathlon champion Bruce Jenner had cashed in. and he didn't want any part of it.
"I felt embarrassed for them sometimes," Heiden has said. "As an athlete I saw sports as a form of recreation and not as a tool to completely sell yourself commercially." Heiden turned down a million-dollar offer to have his picture on the Wheaties box because he thought it would cost him too much of his privacy. "I don't know many people in the Olympic situation who have turned down very much money," says Art Kaminsky, who represents Heiden. "Eric could have made a lot more money than he has, but we try to stretch it for the long haul. That's why we're very selective about what he does." That strategy, Kaminsky says, has still earned Heiden seven figures, while allowing him time to ride on the international cycling circuit and attend Stanford Medical School, where he is working toward a medical degree.
Heiden realized that if he completely sold himself off for cash, people would expect too much of him every time he appeared in public. "It means so much to people for you to be nice," says Fleming. "So you do that, and then when it all gets to be too much, you can close the door and just scream."
Fleming has recently been hired as a "public spokesperson" for the National Pork Producers Council, which is currently engaged in a celebrity range war with the beef industry and its spokesperson, Cybill Shepherd, whom the pork forces dismiss as a "sex goddess." Fleming insists she did a careful analysis of the NPPC to be sure its image was "up to my standards." rather than put her name on a pig in a poke.
"A lot of athletes think that after the Olympics are over they're going to come into a lot of easy money," Fleming says. "But they aren't. It's hard work. A gold medal is a foot in the door, but it's no guarantee. None at all."
When Bill Johnson won the gold medal in the Olympic downhill at Sarajevo in 1984, the world press gathered around him and asked what this historic occasion meant to him. Johnson considered the question for a moment, then replied, "Millions. We're talking millions."
Johnson, of course, has had to live that remark down. "I'd be surprised if he made thousands," says Kaminsky. "I've never seen a Bill Johnson ad. Have you? Has anybody?"
Johnson has been pilloried for making his cupidity so public—handicapping financial windfalls is a time-honored tradition within the fortified walls of the Olympic Village—but the truly surprising aspect of his boast is that he didn't make good on it. "He had an excellent opportunity to capitalize on that [gold medal], an incredible opportunity," says Billy Kidd, whose silver in the '64 slalom at Innsbruck was the first Alpine medal ever won by an American man. "Don't forget, Phil Mahre won a gold medal in that Olympics, too, but it was Bill Johnson who captured the imagination of the American public. He was brash, he predicted and he produced. And people loved that. What hurt him was that he didn't have the results after that, and he lost credibility. The things that got him the most attention from the media were exactly the kinds of things most companies don't want associated with their product."
Johnson probably could have had his millions, even if he had spent the rest of his life only endorsing skis and long underwear, but he combined arrogance, naked greed and poor results—one of your less attractive combos—and found his career going downhill a good deal faster than his skis. "It was definitely worth a million dollars to him," says Canada's Nancy Greene, winner of the gold medal in the giant slalom at Grenoble in 1968, "but he blew it."