A gold medal moment can shine long after the last notes of an athlete's national anthem are sung. From Wheaties boxes and Subway commercials to speaking engagements and magazine photo spreads, some Olympians can cash in their gold medal for some actual green.
"A gold medal stays with you for life," says Ben Sturner, CEO and founder of the Leverage Agency in New York. "The other medals are often forgotten."
Think about Olympians like Michael Phelps and Apolo Ohno, who are as recognizable as Tom Brady or LeBron James. Throughout his career, Phelps has landed top brands like Kelloggs, Subway, Omega, Speedo, Visa, Nike and AT&T. Ohno made speed-skating cool, and has enjoyed the sponsorships of McDonald's, General Electric, Vicks and Coca-Cola, and lest we forget his winning appearance on "Dancing With The Stars."
But, as Sturner warns, there's a very small window of opportunity for these endorsements. With the closing ceremonies behind us, football is ready to kick off, and by October, most of us won't be thinking about the Olympics. As anyone who watched TV in the weeks leading up to the 2012 London Games knows, Ryan Lochte totally swam across the Atlantic, and the bulk of the advertising campaigns happen before the games.
"Any Olympic athlete who has an opportunity for an endorsement or speaking engagement once the games are over would be wise to do them," Sturner says. "There's a short shelf-life for the Olympics."
If an athlete can't lock in a major endorsement deal with a credit card or cell phone provider, a speaking engagement can pay $10,000 to $15,000 (and even more for stars like Michael Phelps). Still, plenty of Olympians have jobs just like you and me. USA discus thrower Lance Brooks has worked in construction, retail and even as a bartender and bouncer. Triathlete Gwen Jorgensen is an accountant at Ernst & Young.
It's a far cry from our heroes of the NFL, who make millions, and plenty of headlines, even when they aren't playing. Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning, for example, were all over the news in the off-season. But few Olympians can stay at the top of our minds in the four years that they aren't dominating our TV screens.
Athletes who surprised us this year, like swimmer Missy Franklin, gymnast Gabby Douglas (who graces the latest issue of People) and soccer star Alex Morgan, didn't get as much commercial hype leading up to the games as their teammates like gymnast Jordyn Wieber or goalie Hope Solo. But Douglas has already landed P&G -- you'll be seeing her on the new boxes of Corn Flakes.
To get such a huge endorsement so quickly usually requires a gold medal and the assurance that the athlete will be competing in the next Olympics, sports attorney Steven Olenick told MSNBC. An endorsement like P&G could mean $1 to $3 million for a young athlete like Douglas.
A gold medal doesn't guarantee endorsement gold, Olenick cautions. It takes a winning personality that Americans relate or look up to. And let's be real, that pretty much means you need to be adorable or sexy.
Speaking of sexy (and immensely talented), Alex Morgan's future is uncertain. Women's soccer isn't widely celebrated in the U.S. (only slightly more than women's basketball). The players essentially have the Women's World Cup and the Olympics to prove their worth to advertisers.
"After these Olympics ... there is nowhere stateside where these women can continue their success. Twice, top-flight American leagues have folded," wrote Barry Svrluga in the Washington Post before the U.S. clinched the gold against Japan. "Morgan clearly hopes that a gold medal Thursday would provide even more interest — and, more importantly, financial backing, by perhaps the turn of the year."
Olympic athletes do have something a lot of major league athletes lack, however: A broad appeal that reaches more female fans and inspiring stories that can match a company's image.
Goalie Hope Solo, who now has an estimated net worth of $2.5 million, certainly made headlines during the Women's World Cup. But gearing up for the Olympics, she expanded her brand appeal by appearing in ESPN's Body Issue. Since the World Cup, Solo has appeared on "Dancing With The Stars" and signed endorsements with Bank of America, BlackBerry, Gatorade and Electronic Arts, and her team's Olympic gold medal win means her popularity should only rise.
Solo also released her autobiography just as the Olympics were starting. She writes painful stories of her late father's criminal history, not to mention to fact that she was actually conceived in prison. The stories help the public get to know the real woman in the goal box. The more we care about the players, the more we may begin to care about the sport.
Some of our most beloved Olympians are exceptions to the gold medal rule, however. Retired figure skater Michelle Kwan is one of the most popular female athletes of all time, yet she never won Olympic gold. But her modest upbringing, combined with plenty of world championship wins, beauty, poise and intelligence have nonetheless kept her on the international stage.
Her endorsement list is full of big names like Visa, Kraft, Coca-Cola and Campbell's Soup. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice honored Kwan as a public diplomacy ambassador, and she continued to serve in President Barack Obama's administration, working with Hillary Clinton and traveling to promote American values in sports and education.
When it comes to turning that gold medal into a lucrative career, only a handful of Olympians will succeed. As TJ Walker, corporate communications guru and CEO of Media Training Worldwide, tells Olympians on Forbes.com, "Have a backup plan. Even with a gold medal you might not receive a single endorsement deal and you might have to do normal office work to make a living."