I didn't know what the olympics was going to do for me if I won," Peggy Fleming is saying. "I didn't have any real grip on the magnitude of it. When the whole thing finally happened, well, it was pretty awesome. I still deal with that. It's not something that goes away.
"I thought I'd have a career of maybe four years, performing in one of the ice shows. Then the next Olympic champion would take over that role. When that didn't happen, I just kept plowing ahead. I'm very appreciative of the career I've had. Really. I just never dreamed it would go on this long."
She has been staring at a log burning in the fireplace, and now she looks up. "Twenty years is a long time to remember someone, isn't it?" she says.
Fleming laughs. She is 39 now and hasn't put on a pair of skates in more than a year. But she will always have a career, she is reminded, because she will always be Peggy Fleming.
She considers this for a moment. "You mean I have to do this forever?" she says finally.
Fleming skated into America's living room in 1968, eased herself into a sit-spin on our collective imagination and never left. At a time of turmoil on college campuses and in the cities, she somehow managed to make figure skating matter deeply. Can anyone who lived through Dick Button's description of her compulsory school figures ever forget the terror of that event? When she came home with gold from the Games in Grenoble, Fleming signed a contract with the Ice Follies, and then in a succession of shows over the years proceeded to prove that her name on the marquee usually guaranteed a full house. Had she stumbled at Grenoble and brought home a bronze, Fleming probably would have been forgotten. It would have been a costly failure, for she's reportedly earned more than $1 million a year since 1968.
Probably the first Olympic champion to convert gold medals into a personal fortune was Norway's Sonja Henie, who won the figure skating gold in 1928 at St. Moritz, in 1932 at Lake Placid and in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Adolf Hitler presented Henie with her last gold medal, as well as a huge picture of himself.
By the time Hitler had invaded Henie's homeland four years later, she was in Hollywood, where she became the object of a spirited studio bidding war. Producer Darryl Zanuck eventually prevailed upon Henie to sign a $300,000 contract with Twentieth Century Fox. "I've signed Miss Henie and her skates." Zanuck said. "Even if she couldn't skate I'd have signed her anyway, but not for so much money."
In such rickety star vehicles as One in a Million and Happy Landing, Henie became the third-leading attraction in the movies, her box office power exceeded only by that of Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. Put that together with her phenomenally successful ice shows, and Henie was, according to the New York World-Telegram sports columnist Joe Williams, "undoubtedly the biggest individual draw sports ever produced."
Popularity of that magnitude is not conferred upon the merely talented, and it is rarely sustained by the merely greedy. One former Olympic medalist who went on to have a lengthy career as a product endorser cites gymnast Mary Lou Retton as an example of a gold medal winner who couldn't resist the lure of quick money and finally burned herself out. "Mary Lou got involved with good products." says the Olympian, who prefers to remain unnamed, "but if you're thinking in terms of longevity, you lose credibility if you get associated with too many different things. People think you're just doing it for the money."