Which of This Year’s Olympic Stars Will Find Lasting Fame?

Ryan Lochte

The 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremonies are tonight (7/27), and it’s not too early to start thinking about your side bets on which winning athletes will hang on to their celebrity status after coming down from the podium.  In fact, the best prospects for celebrity gold already have fat endorsement deals in place, contingent upon their performance. You may not be too aware of swimmer Ryan Lochte yet – but Gatorade, Ralph Lauren, Gillette, Mutual of Omaha, and Speedo certainly are. According to Business Insider International, he stands to make between $3-4 million if certain incentive clauses kick in on his endorsement contracts –meaning, of course, that he fares well against international rivals and super star teammate Michael Phelps.The myriad battles over endorsement deals are large sidebar stories to the games. There is the clash of the titans situation in which athletes must not hawk wares by companies with which they have personal endorsement deals during the games; only those companies that are official Olympic sponsors are supposed to be shilling. That’s why you won’t be seeing Phelps helping himself to Subway sandwiches during the Olympics – of which McDonalds is a sponsor – though his mother might.

The alchemy that turns some Olympians into celebrities while others return to the ranks of the relatively unknown requires a blend of ingredients, including, first and foremost, that said Olympian is interested in becoming a celebrity. Charisma is required. A gift of gab. Then — sorry, but it’s true – attractive looks. You need not be classically beautiful or handsome. Quirky can work. But the camera must like you.

U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team members Jordyn Wieber, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman, Kyla Ross and McKayla Maroney are possibilities. Track star Lolo Jones – if only she could pull off a comeback win after failing in Beijing, she’d be a great bet. Stunning double amputee running sensation, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, ought to be good for some rights deals.

There’ve been plenty of Olympic heroes whose brilliance as athletes just didn’t transfer into other realms. Of course. Seven-Gold-Medal-winning Mark Spitz comes to mind. He was super handsome, but came off stiff, to say the least, in post-Olympics appearances. Watching a comedy sketch with Bob Hope in which Spitz played a dentist was the TV answer to having your teeth drilled. Very uncomfortable, with the deep fear that at any second, it could erupt into shrieking pain. Mellower now, Spitz is actually more watchable. This year, he appeared in a commercial for Ageless Male, a testosterone supplement. Available at Walmart.

Olympians have fared far less well with acting than with other sorts of public appearances. “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmuller and ice skating movie sweetheart Sonja Henie are the two biggest movie star names that began with Olympic glory – and that was way back in another century. Before he became a criminal, O.J. Simpson appeared in the “Naked Gun” movies, “Capricorn One” and the mini-series “Roots.” He was never much of an actor, but David and Jerry Zucker figured out how to use him effectively within their “Naked”shenanigans. Tara Lipinski put lots of effort into building an acting career, but she remains most easily identified as the Gold Medal-winning figure skater. Cathy Rigby retired from gymnastics in 1972, did her first turn in “Peter Pan” in ’74 , appeared on Broadway, and has spent much of her time doing stage work from “Annie Get Your Gun” to “Meet Me in St. Louis.” She’s 59 now. And she still gets referred to as a gymnast.

Reality TV is a much more welcoming sphere, luckily for today’s Olympians. Case in point: Decathlon Gold medalist Bruce Jenner’s movie career is exemplified by the awful big screen bomb “Can’t Stop the Music” – but we all know the career gold he is mining as the patriarch of the Kardashian clan.

Short track speed skating king Apolo Anton Ohno is not only the most decorated American Winter Olympics champ of all time with eight medals, he’s proven to be highly watchable as a celebrity and commercial pitchman. He won on “Dancing With the Stars” and appeared on “I Get That a Lot” — and sold tons of Oreo cookies, Vicks Nyquil, McDonald’s burgers and Cokes.  Ohno and fellow Olympian and “DWTS” champ, Shawn Johnson, have just been announced as among the returning competitors for the coming season’s all-star championship.

Olympians have certainly found a haven in “DWTS.”  Kristi Yamaguci, Misty Mae Treanor, Louie Vito, Evan Lysacek and Hope Solo also freshened up their fame with turns on the popular ABC show – as did Olympians-turned-boxers Sugar Ray Leonard and Floyd Mayweather.

Many Olympic faves return to the cameras as commentators, and do commendably. This year, E! Entertainment will be bringing us “the lighter side” of the games with coverage of the celeb scene and parties in London outside ye olde Olympic Village. Aboard for that ride is someone who fits in on both sides of the equation: Bruce Jenner, of course.