LONDON — Vincent Hancock won gold in skeet shooting here this week, missing just two of 150 targets in the competition. It was an extraordinary performance and unprecedented, too. Hancock prevailed in the same event in Beijing in 2008, making him the first skeet shooter to successfully defend his Olympic title.
The man is a superstar in his sport. So what riches await this impeccably mannered, 23-year-old Army captain when he returns home? What companies are lining up to write sponsorship checks? What signs are there that his life is about to change?
“None, really," he said in an interview on Wednesday. “I’ll try to go after some of the higher profile companies in November, once I leave the military. But I’m not going to get greedy. I’ll be thankful for anything I’m given."
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be skeet shooters. Or slalom canoers. Or judo fighters. Or, to be quite blunt about it, any sport that has an international audience only when the Olympics roll around. Not if you would like your babies to take long, post-glory media tours and pocket wads of cash.
The reality is that even competitors in popular sports are likely to find that life after gold is not very lucrative.
There are always a handful of breakout stars in the games, and the most compelling and accomplished will turn up on Wheaties boxes or in Adidas ads.
But such triumphs are the exception. Great, earsplitting ka-ching moments elude the overwhelming majority of Olympians.
“Just look at swimming," says Peter Carlisle of Octagon, a sports marketing firm in McLean, Va.
“One of the most popular sports at the Olympics, and there are a lot of U.S. gold medals in swimming. If you’re an American, you need to stand out, you need to be distinguishable. There’s no way all the gold medal American swimmers will wind up in the mainstream market."
If even athletes in big-time sports have trouble getting paid in the United States, imagine the fate of winners of obscure gold in smaller countries. Michele Frangilli of Italy just beat all comers in men’s archery. Let’s just say he is not expecting that his next car will be a Lamborghini.
“Normally, this is a sport that is not existing for most people in Italy," Frangilli said on Thursday. “Only football (soccer). People know archery during the Olympics."
Any nibbles since the victory?
“At the moment, no," he said. “Maybe when I go home. But Giorgio Armani — you know who is Giorgio Armani? — he is a sponsor of the Italian Olympic Committee, so probably we will be in some kind of advertising. The whole team."
Urska Zolnir of Slovenia won a gold medal in women’s judo on Wednesday. There will be a parade in honor of her and her teammates once the games are over, in the capital city of Ljubljana, and she is expecting interviews with magazines and radio stations in the next couple of weeks. But sponsorships and enduring fame? No way.
“I will not be rich," she said, with a smile, during an interview in the athletes’ village. Which is just fine with her. The role model pressure, the performance anxiety of interviews — she could live without it. Her goal, she explained, is to get back to training with a minimum of intrusion. Or as she put it, “Just to be the same like was before the medal."
But if there is a way to turn all that practice and toil into dollars, why not? Four years ago, Hancock was barred from accepting a couple of sponsorship offers because of military rules. He was, however, allowed to pocket a total of $105,000, from the U.S. Olympic Committee and the USA Shooting team.
“It was enough for a down payment on a house," Hancock said. “Didn’t pay for the whole house, by any means."
In the immediate aftermath of his Beijing medal, he remembers, there were few requests for interviews.
“Quite frankly, people weren’t that interested in us," he said. The ever-simmering issue of gun control might have had something to do with it. “We aren’t the most politically sound sport out there."
Once he returned to the United States, there was an appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show, in Chicago, though that was with medalists in a bunch of sports, so the stage was crowded. Hancock had a moment to say hello to Oprah and that was about it. There were a few radio interviews, and some other TV cameos. And then, nothing.
For a while, Hancock decided to quit. The joy had gone out of skeet shooting, and he had achieved his ultimate goal, Olympic gold, at the age of 19. What do you do after that?
Win it again, he ultimately decided.
As made-for-television tales go, this one sounds pitchable: All-American type nearly retires, then returns and repeats gold medal showing, in a sport where that has never been done. But there is a meta competition at the Olympics, a contest of personal narratives, and Hancock is a low seed in this tournament. The trick is to be introduced to the public before your event takes place, so that the public knows you pre-triumph. To qualify for that kind of TV time you need a personal tale that wins the attention of NBC producers, who, courtesy of their broadcasting rights, are arguably the real king makers here.