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On Tuesday, days before the Winter Games competition in Vancouver, Forbes magazine provided some sense of which Olympians have already got the gold.
Among the multi-millionaires who’ll be competing in Vancouver is the red-headed Shaun White, who is sponsored by snowboard manufacturer Burton and various companies that make energy drinks, sun glasses and electronic games. White’s endorsement take last year came to more than $7 million, not counting the half-million-dollar private half-pipe one company built for him in Colorado so that he could develop lunatic stunts away from prying eyes.
One of those stunts helped White win a gold medal at the Winter X Games last month. That triumph was worth $40,000, which White may or may not have even bothered to deposit.
Not so long ago, the best a gold-medal-winning figure skater could hope for after the Games was a temporary contract with a traveling ice show and her smile on a box of Wheaties.
Try telling that to South Korean Kim Yu-Na.
At 19, a veteran of zero Olympics, Yu-Na has already been paid nearly $8 million by an auto company and a bank in her homeland and multinationals Nike, Samsung and Proctor and Gamble. One hopes her accountants will remember to also include in Yu-Na’s tax returns the $150,000 she has earned for winning three recent international competitions, including the World Championship, but they could perhaps be forgiven for overlooking such relatively insignificant sums.
For years, the wealthiest basketball players, tennis players and golfers have been making more money from endorsements than they have for playing their games. That the same can now be said of the Olympians most attractive to corporations looking for faces might seem ironic: whole Winter Olympic teams have skidded dangerously close to extinction for lack of funds. The U.S. speed skating team, for example, was scrambling to buy ice time before Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert raised $300,000 on their behalf.
Beyond that, host cities have been known to neglect needy school programs and put off infrastructure repairs to accommodate the Games.
But for the stars backed by giants of commerce, there will be gold, whether or not they finish first. And as always, for lots of the less well-connected Winter Olympians, even those who win, there will be memories and, of course, a suit of clothes perfect for another cold-weather parade.
Bill Littlefield hosts Only A Game, Saturdays at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m.
This program aired on February 12, 2010.
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