branding athletes

One of the things I like about the Olympics are the inspiring stories of the athletes. The influence of Alexandre Bilodeau's brother or the courage of Joannie Rochette to compete amidst the grief of her Mom's death - these stories reveal a humanness to the athletes that we can all relate to.

But while many of us resonate with the down-to-earth stories, in victory we still place a sort of super-human quality upon the athletes. And while heroes can inspire a nation, a nation and a culture also impacts the hero. One of the greatest impacts, sadly I think, is the athletes transformation into a commodity, a brand to be marketed. Victory is as much about patriotic celebration as it is about branding athletes.

Watching the inauguration of new Canadian heroes during these 2010 Winter Olympics has given insight into this cultural phenomena that sees celebrities - athletes in this case - transform from people to brands. And in the case of the Olympics, the achievement of a gold medal makes this transformation almost instantaneous. Take snowboarder Maelle Ricker, for example, in one of her countless post-victory interviews this week, she was asked how it feels to be forming her "brand." What's it like, the interviewer asked, to be a commodity that people desire? You could almost see the confusion (revulsion?) on Ricker's face at the idea. For her, she's still just Maelle Ricker who happens to have won a gold medal. But for the rest of the world - marketers in particular - she's now a gold medal winner who happens to be Maelle Ricker.

I realize this capitalization on athlete's success is by no means a new phenomenon. I mean, how else could Tiger Woods become the first billion-dollar athlete if it wasn't for the Tiger Woods brand? What bugs me, revealed in the interviewer's question to Ricker, is our culture's outright acceptance of this reality. In fact, the interview appeared to assume that Ricker was enjoying the transformation. Ricker's look of confusion, in my opinion, revealed the need to question this idea that heroes are foremost a commodity. Her genuine humility in hesitating to accept this transformation, thankfully, gives me hope that while our culture strives to transform and consume our heroes, some heroes are less inclined to embrace their own brand.

So while I cheer along with the rest of Canada at our athlete's success, I hope and pray that our celebration doesn't turn into blind consumption - making these real people into unreal heroes known more for their advertising potential then their real-life stories.

BTW: Dora Dueck has a thoughtful reflection on our responses to the athletes' success, also pointing out an irony of using their stories to blog about the excessive attention on their lives - a thought that crossed my mind, but alas, didn't stop me from posting... :)

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