It takes mettle to make gold

By Susan Edmunds

An Olympic gold medal changes athletes' lives, but not necessarily their bank balances.

Sarah Walker , Sophie Pascoe , Lisa Carrington appearing in an advertisement for NZ Beef and Lamb. Photo / Supplied
Sarah Walker , Sophie Pascoe , Lisa Carrington appearing in an advertisement for NZ Beef and Lamb. Photo / Supplied

A year ago, Joseph Sullivan could walk down the road without a passerby giving him a second glance. Now, it's as if he's public property. People stare, make comments and pull out their smartphones and start furtively Googling to confirm the identity of the man they are looking at.

What's changed?

Sullivan, with Nathan Cohen, won gold in the double scull final at the London Olympics. A gold medal can change the way athletes live, thrust them into the public eye, even have the Prime Minister begging to be photographed with them.

But an Olympic gold in New Zealand doesn't mean the huge financial windfall it nets some athletes overseas.

High Performance Sport NZ pays Olympians a performance enhancement grant designed to take the pressure off so they can focus on training.

A gold medal in London meant $60,000 before tax; silver and bronze earned $55,000. Even athletes who finished 16th in their events were handed $20,000.

Each year, their funding is predicated on their ranking at that year's pinnacle event.

Those post-Olympic grants were among the highest in the world - about twice what Australian and US athletes get - but Kiwi athletes hoping to net lucrative sponsorship deals are likely to be out of luck.

Nick Brown-Haysom, managing director of the New Zealand Sponsorship Agency, says the number of big businesses sponsoring athletes in this country is relatively small.

Sponsors drive most of the bigger deals. They watch athletes being interviewed, spot someone who seems a good fit, and make the call. Even then the pay cheques are likely to be small by international standards.

MGCom advertising consultant Martin Gillman says American athletes may earn millions from their gold medals, but New Zealanders will usually get a few thousand dollars, and perhaps some contra thrown in. "It's a small market, it's really hard to gain anything from it."

Accounting software firm Banklink and Giltrap Motors have provided all our gold-winning rowers with Audi Q5s for the next four years if they continue with rowing, two years if they don't.

But as yet, says Sullivan, there are no sponsors handing over cold, hard cash. He thinks the medals will help future negotiations with sponsors, "but I haven't got that far yet".

Sullivan wants to make it clear he's not complaining. Being an Olympic medal-winner is "massively life-changing", and almost entirely in a good way. He's become more confident, better with dealing with the public and is invited to events every other day. There's more pressure, but mostly that's a good thing, he says.


So is this celebrity status a fleeting, Andy Warhol-15-minutes-of-fame moment? And how lucrative is it?

When it comes to turning gold into cash, it helps to be attractive, personable and compete in a sport that captures the imagination. Winners in athletics will likely have more star power than those who excel in small-bore rifle shooting, says Gillman.

Since the Olympics, gold medallist kayaker Lisa Carrington's star has been firmly on the rise. She, BMX silver medallist Sarah Walker and paralympics gold medallist Sophie Pascoe are fronting the latest round of Beef+Lamb advertisements, taking over from cyclist Sarah Ulmer and rowing's Evers-Swindell twins.

Some reports have estimated the pay cheques for those advertisements at up to $75,000 a year for four years, though Gillman thinks that is unlikely. For a television commercial, an American athlete would expect six or seven figures. "Here, you're lucky to get into five figures," he says.

It's a big improvement on the strictly-enforced ameteurism of yesteryear. Gary Robertson, part of the victorious rowing eight at the 1972 Munich Olympics, says it was "funny" to see the rowers of today getting cars and things after Olympic success.

"All we got was a box of Milo. But it's still not a lot. And whether we pay them or not, we expect a lot from our medal winners, at least during the year or so after the Games."

Carrington says her schedule has filled since she came home with a gold.

Carrington is hopeful that as "second tier" sports become more successful internationally, they will build up greater recognition.

"Life has been very exciting," she muses. "It is a little busier and a bit more of a juggle, but New Zealanders have been so positive and I feel proud to be where I am. It definitely helps having such a successful Olympics across a range of sports."

The weirdest thing about being a medal winner? "Having John Key ask to have a photo with me!"

That's a good example of the sheen that a gold medal seems to impart on those who hold it. Brown-Haysom says athletes should make the most of that power while they have it. "If you've won a gold medal, you could probably get on the phone to the CEO of any business and they'd take the call."

Rower Eric Murray has been surprised at how he has become public property since having a gold medal hung round his neck. He is training for the Fight for Life, where he'll take on Manu Vatuvei.

It's been interesting see the enjoyment people get out of his medal. They'll come up to him, touch the medal, want a photo with it.

He's had to get his head around the fact that seeing the medal is a big deal to New Zealanders.

This time last year, training came first and everything else - family, recreation, life - had to take a back seat. Now things are a little less frantic, although he is juggling sponsorship commitments at a rate of three or four a week. "We're trying to have a breather but it's difficult to do."

Murray does not want to give exact details of his payments but says he is reimbursed for his time. "You don't go out to win a golden handshake. If sponsors want to help out, we're more than happy to do it, and try to provide them a great service in return."

Brown-Haysom says someone who is personable and doesn't object to being public property is likely to be able to make money out of sponsorship for a lot longer than those who are shy and retiring. Those who cement their reputations as good public speakers can pick up gigs well into retirement, earning up to $12,000 a time.

But building the brand is key. Though New Zealanders are getting better at celebrating sporting successes that don't involve an oval ball, attention on the rowers and cyclists who aren't on our television screens will wane over the years between Games.

It's unfair to compare them to the All Blacks, Gillman says. New Zealand's rugby team commands huge sums from sponsors because they are a global brand.

Gillman says AIG chooses to have its logo on the black shirts because it wants to be associated with a brand that is seen as the best in the world.

Until the rowing World Champs pick up the same year-in, year-out TV coverage that the All Blacks get, athletes are unlikely to find their success translates into the same big pay cheques. "We have a fair amount of national pride, but that doesn't extend to keeping them going from a financial perspective. It's the love of doing it that has to drive them forward."

- Herald on Sunday

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