Aug 08

After The Goldrush

FT + TMFD14 comments • 366 views

In an ordinary Olympic games, Britain racks up 5 or 6 gold medals: this time, we have 16 and counting – marvellous news, incredible work on the part of Team GB, etc etc. But also, in a sense a slightly raw deal for some of the athletes involved, as while the pot of fame and endorsements available to successful Olympians will be bigger than usual, it probably won’t be three times as big. Please don’t take this the wrong way: I’m not suggesting that fame and fortune is the main reason any of our athletes compete, but it’s got to be a nice bonus, and the fact is that following these Games some of our winners are going to end up a lot more famous than others.

It was not ever thus – take Britain’s performance at the Barcelona Olympics. Five golds, and four of the athletes involved became more or less household names. But the Beijing mob surely won’t fare quite so well: in fact looking at the media you can already see who’s being groomed for future stardom (in the British sense of the word, i.e. a comfy berth on a daytime TV sofa whenever needed).

What is the FAME FORMULA for Olympic success? In the grand tradition of bogus equations I give you this:

F = (A * C)/R

F, clearly, stands for FAME. The level of F determines your later station in life, whether it be beloved sporting ambassador, tut-tutting commentator, or advertising WellMan supplements on the tube.

A stands for ACHIEVEMENT. Winning an medal is an achievement, obviously, but this also includes factors like age, overcoming adversity, winning our first medal in something for a grillion years, losing it completely on the podium, etc.

C stands for CELEBGENICNESS, a complex word for a complex concept, as it encompasses things like future potential, down-to-earthness, audience being able to relate to, audience finding hott, and so on.

Finally, R stands for RUBNESS OF SPORT. This is a technical term involving the sport’s esteem in the eyes of the Great British Public, and the extent to which they can understand what happens in it.

A final factor is that there are only so many ‘slots’ available in the public consciousness for any given sport – we can win all the rowing medals we like, for example, but Redgrave and Pinsent have a lock on the Famous Rowers slots for now, even though they don’t actually race any more. This significantly limits the chances of any of the new crop becoming famous (at least after these Olympics, but possibly forever: consider the Famous Ice Skaters slot). There are a lot more slots open to track athletes, comparatively few for field athletes, potentially quite a few for swimmers, and so on.

Looking at our medalists in this games and applying the Fame Formula, the blindingly obvious winner is Rebecca Adlington: massive achievement, high celebgenicness, sport we vaguely care about, and an easy (too bloody easy) angle for non-sporting coverage viz. “likes shoes”. You can already see the media getting very excited and I hope she can handle it (this in itself is yet another angle – the oh now her life will change story). Adlington’s high Fame score will have a detrimental effect on some of our other winners, who fit a similar bubbly, down-to-earth bracket. Even though they’re in different sports, I’m guessing if it wasn’t for Adlington, Nicole Cooke would come out of these Games more famous than she will (except in Wales!).

You can see the media sizing up other athletes too – Rebecca Romero’s performance in two different disciplines is awesome, but the angle on her seems to be “she’s a mentalist”: scarily driven and very obviously different from the rest of us, whereas with the ‘nice’ athletes we can sort of ignore all the punishing training schedules and what they might imply about someone’s personality. This will limit her post-Games fame, which is a pity I think.

Who else? Christine Ohoruogu will get a big push as a Londoner, though the raging arguments on the BBC Sports Blog (and elsewhere) over her missed-tests bans suggest that the route to future fame won’t be that easy. The rowers are doomed, as is the Laser class sailing guy since i. his event is deceitfully named and ii. people have only just got their heads around Ben Ainslie being properly famous. Cycling is an interesting case – enormous medal haul means people will know more about it, so the R score decreases and more slots open up – Wiggins and Hoy will both step up a fame grade.

Then we’re into the “minor medals”, where people will also be a bit hard done by owing to the sheer bulk of GB medals around: ordinarily a couple of silver or bronze medalists push on to future fame, but in Beijing Louis Smith looks the only likely candidate so far, and in the current medal-drunk climate Britain winning a men’s gymnastics medal has been downgraded from “HOLY SHIT” to “only bronze?”. No room either for plucky losers, which is probably a good thing for the future success of British sport but I feel a bit sorry for Tom Daley, who’s turned from glorious hope to pub quiz answer inside of a week. (I don’t feel that sorry though, since he reminds me weirdly of James Harries).

I’m sure that come 2012 even the forgotten names will come flooding back to those of us who only pay attention every four years, but – like seeing what happens to Big Brother contestants – it’s going to be fascinating watching the ebb and flow of medalist fame. At the very least, this bumper crop should mean some vicious battles for commentary slots come 2024.


  1. 1
    Ben on 20 Aug 2008 #

    Tom Daley’s not finished yet… he’s still got the individual event to go. And he’s certainly being groomed for media success – in fact, I think he’s got Beckham’s marketing people behind him. His pre-games press conference featured three separate mentions of sponsors! Not bad for a 14 year old.

    Also…. comedy Olympics diving headline.

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    Pete on 20 Aug 2008 #

    The first obvious test of all this famousity will be the Sports Personality of the Year which has gone in a week from being shoo-in for Rebecca Adlington to a wide open field in a week (Chris Hoy is also supposed to be a v.v. nice man).

    The other thing to bear in mind is the Rubness Of Sport in the UK publics mind may well change during this process. One assumes there might be a bit more clamour to screen the next Cycling World Championships since we own the sport.

    And a corollary to all of this, is the potential knock on effect on the presenters. Jill Douglas, our girl at the velodrome, will be happy as they have gone to her more often than any of the secondary sport presenters. Should be good for her career.

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    Tom on 20 Aug 2008 #

    Yes I think cycling may now officially be a Not Rub sport in the UK, as the events have all been shown to not be as ker-r-r-rAYZY as reputation suggested, and actually offer slightly different flavours of sportsness to other stuff on offer. (The awesome passive-aggressiveness of the you go first – no you go first section of the sprint!)

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    lex on 20 Aug 2008 #

    The ‘controversy’ over Ohuruogu’s medal is v depressing, it is astonishing how many ignorant people still feel the need to shoot their mouths off about a subject they clearly have no knowledge beyond tabloid headlines about. The media isn’t helping either, all these articles referring to the “question marks” over her win are completely ridiculous – what question marks? There are no question marks! I don’t think she should have to defend herself yet again. Hopefully the fact that the athletics establishment is backing her so strongly will count in her favour.

    Tom Daley has a few more Games yet to evade the “pub quiz answer” fate! I think if Shanaze Reade wins the BMX event she could definitely score high on the fame formula (opinionated, photogenic, ‘youth’-orientated mildly dangerous sport &c &c). Adlington and Hoy probably most likely to become famous “sports establishment” faces ie the Sue Barkers of a decade henceforth.

    James Cracknell is as famous as Pinsent and Redgrave! He is so hott.

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    Erithian on 20 Aug 2008 #

    There are all kinds of places to go into the Ohuruogu debate and this isn’t really one – but FWIW I think she was maybe badly advised after she won the worlds last year. That was the moment most of the GBP got to hear of her, and instead of being defensive (which you can perfectly understand) she could have patiently set out the circs – how fatally easy it is for an innocent athlete to fall foul of the procedures to catch cheats, and the fact that those whose job it is to catch cheats clearly don’t think she is one. But best of British to her.

    Adlington’s other “angle” is the Mansfield factor – does this make her the most famous Mansfielder and not Alvin Stardust? You wouldn’t call her hott exactly but that didn’t stop Sally Gunnell.

    Probable fame if only of the YouTube variety awaits bronze-medal windsurfer Bryony Shaw for saying “I’m so fucking happy” live on BBC1.

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    CarsmileSteve on 20 Aug 2008 #

    hahahaa, i was wondering who would be the first to swear! my money was on pommel horse kid, but he was a good boy…

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    CarsmileSteve on 20 Aug 2008 #

    also i don’t think torvill & dean are good examples as we haven’t had anyone as good as them since, whereas the rowing chaps (and navy dude Peter Reed in partic.) could very easily create additional Famous Rower slots…

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    rosie on 20 Aug 2008 #

    I have been very cynical about how much cycling we are likely to see on the telly in the next four years. I rather enjoy watching some track cycling and would welcome more opportunities to do so, both live and on the telly. Unfortunately I don’t think there is a velodrome closer than Manchester. So much for capitalising on our success to increase popular participation.

    Oh, and two golds got Kelly Holmes a damehood. Will either or both of the Rebeccae? get one? And if not, why not? And what should Chris Hoy get? A peerage? And why did Coe get a peerage and Ovett not?

  9. 9
    katstevens on 20 Aug 2008 #

    I really hope Rebecca can hang on at the top for another four years at least – swimmers can hang around winning stuff for ages (see G. Hackett) but if you start off v successful when you’re a teenager then after a while you do run the risk of burn-out (much like tennis players!) or having a sudden ‘omg i have wasted my life I shall give up swimming and become a dentist’ moment, or – worst of all – never being quite as good as you were when you were a teenager.

  10. 10
    rosie on 20 Aug 2008 #

    I suppose the problem Rebecca has is that, however many Olympic medals she may win in the future, they will never feel as good as these two. Especially the first of them.

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    CarsmileSteve on 21 Aug 2008 #

    Coe got his peerage so he could be in Major’s government after he lost his Commons seat, not for sporting reasons, innit.

  12. 12
    SwissToni on 22 Aug 2008 #

    did you know, a propos nothing, that when he was knocked back by the British Olympic team for the 1988 games in Seoul, Coe had a serious offer to run for India? Given the whole toff/oik angle that everyone took between him and Ovett, it’s much overlooked that he is actually of Indian heritage… his father or his grandfather, I don’t recall which.

    As for the cycling…erm…. the world championships (and Jill Douglas) were all over the BBC a few short months ago, when GB won even more golds, mainly because the women get more than the Olympics’ derisory 3 track events and Pendleton won loads.

    Other commentators to benefit… I put my vote in for Rob Walker in the boat at the sailing. He was aces, and apparently has only been commentating on the sport this year. The British team clearly like him and his enthusiasm is infectious.

    Chris Hoy is the big British winner of these games. He’s the reigning Olympic champion in 4 disciplines (the 1km he won in Athens – his specialist event – was dropped). In the pantheon of British sporting legends, he’s right up there, and I don’t think he’s finished yet. Apparently he is a lovely man, but I imagine he struggles to buy trousers.


  13. 13
    SwissToni on 22 Aug 2008 #

    oh, and shout out to Iain Percy in the Star class for some quality swearing (and honesty) on being accosted immediately after winning the gold in an incredibly tight race:

    “Iain. You’ve won gold! how does it feel?”
    “It feels fucking brilliant!”

    He also asked if we were still ahead of the aussies in the medal table, so clearly a top man.

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