How the Olympics Can Help — or Hurt — An Athlete’s Business Career

For Olympic athletes who play their cards right, people's fascination with the games can translate to opportunities in the business world that may not be available to mere mortals

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JOEL ROBINE / AFP - Getty Images

Sinjin Smith lunges to get the ball during the preliminary Olympic beach volleyball match against Portugal at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, July 26, 1996.

Brent Lang doesn’t like to brag about the Olympic gold medal he won for the U.S. men’s 4×100 freestyle swimming relay in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. In fact, he tends not to talk about his swimming career, which also includes four individual NCAA championships and a world championship.

Yet, more than twenty years later, it invariably comes up. “I’ve had people ask me for an autograph in the middle of meetings,” says Lang, 44, who is the president and chief operating officer for hospital communications company Vocera. “People seem to have a fascination with Olympians, even more so today.”

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For Olympic athletes who play their cards right, this fascination – not to mention the discipline and determination that is common among this crowd –  can translate to opportunities in the business world that may not be available to mere mortals.

“The positive is you’re getting exposure that the average person will never get,” says beach volleyball legend Sinjin Smith, 55, who added Olympian to his resume in 1996, when beach volleyball made its Olympic debut in Atlanta. Smith helped build Sideout clothing into a beach staple. Now he’s using his name to help footwear company Honu become the preferred sandal of volleyball players.

Still, the Olympics aren’t the most direct path to the corner office.  On the contrary, the dream of reaching the pinnacle can initially come at the expense of one’s career.  “You’re dedicating your whole life to your sport, training and competing at the highest level,” says Smith. “That’s not a part-time job.”

Putting their careers on hold

Back when Darryl King was vying for the Olympics, the rules governing amateurism made it virtually impossible for athletes to train full time beyond college. “You either hit it at the right time – when you were still in school – or you were going to struggle financially,” says King, who qualified to run the high hurdles in 1980 Moscow Olympics but, because of the U.S. boycott didn’t compete.

Though he was tempted to make a go at the 1984 Games, the lure of a paycheck prompted him to hang it up. “I got a job at IBM and never looked back,” says King, 54, who now runs DLK Consultants, a firm that specializes in team building at medium-size companies.

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These days it is easier for athletes to cobble together enough endorsements and outside funding to pursue their sport after college – but sometimes it’s to their detriment, says King. “An athlete always has in his mind that he can do something to improve his performance,” he says. “Because of that, they end up delaying their opportunity to get started in their next career.” The longer they wait, he says, the more difficult the transition.

Lang agrees that expectations were different in his day. “Back in 1988 there wasn’t any money,” he says. “There was never any temptation to be a professional swimmer.”

That’s not to say most Olympic hopefuls are banking on the same kind of multi-million dollar endorsements as Michael Phelps. “Very few athletes can make a living off their sponsorships,” says Carissa Gump, 28, who competed in weightlifting in the 2008 Beijing Games and is now a marketing and sponsorship manager with governing body USA Weightlifting.

And yet, as sports become more competitive, balancing many goals is increasingly difficult. “You are very much in that moment,” she adds. “You have to be.” With training her top priority, Gump took a light course load while in college at the University of Colorado and didn’t complete her degree until after the Olympics. “Most of my friends had master’s degrees and were established in their professions,” she says. “I was a 25-year-old in class with 19-year-olds.”

One consolation: “I knew that because of my Olympic experience I had skill set that would serve me well in my career,” she says.

From the training room to the cubicle

Even for athletes who aren’t household names, Olympian is a pretty powerful endorsement. “One thing that a lot of people who’ve had that experience have in common is they’re not afraid of hard work,” says Steve Kerho, who ran hurdles for Canada in the Seoul Games and now oversees analytics, media and marketing optimization at Organic, a division of Omnicom. “They’re not satisfied just showing up.”

Whether because employers recognize that character trait or they have an affinity for a particular sport, being an Olympian “might open the door a little bit,” concedes Kerho, 48. “But at the end of the day you still have to deliver.”

Indeed, sometimes the bar is even higher for Olympic athletes. “People often expect the highest level of performance no matter what you’re doing,” says Colleen Coyne, 40, who won gold in women’s hockey at the 1998 Olympics and is now an inbound marketing specialist at HubSpot, which makes integrated Internet marketing software.

“As an athlete, you need to think about what it was about your sport that made you excel and try to match that with your work opportunities,” she explains. “I played on a team sport and I thrive in a small team atmosphere, but I don’t do well on my own.”

Even so, she says, the work world can sometimes be a shock to athletes, especially if they’ve been at the top of their game for a while. “Most companies aren’t going to rally around you the way your family or coaches did,” she says. “They’re not asking ‘What do we need to do to make sure Colleen succeeds?’”

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