Most Olympians train their entire childhoods in sweat-filled bubbles for records, for glory, for a shiny chunk of circular hardware.
Their level of discipline and commitment, starting as early as elementary school or earlier, is staggering. But what happens after the podium and the anthem? Especially if your sport doesn't earn prime-time real estate and remains amateur in status?
There's nowhere to graduate to after you earn a medal in shot put or badminton. And the financial remuneration? Thin, to put it mildly. Cyrus Hostetler, a two-time Olympic javelin thrower, says that the most he has netted annually from the sport is about US$3,000.
Many, if not most, competitors, such as shooter Ginny Thrasher, who won the first US Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, will return to day jobs or college, in her case as a sophomore engineering major at West Virginia University. At best, they will earn some local fame and modest endorsements.
"I did a lot of going out to the community, sponsored by a local bank that doesn't exist anymore," says former Olympic shooter Edward Etzel, a professor of sports and exercise psychology at Thrasher's school who won a gold medal in 1984.
For the big stars, of course, it's a more glorious story. In the old days, when the world felt smaller, we seemed less distracted and the Games weren't so packaged, the Olympics resonated longer in the nation's collective consciousness.
Athletes often basked in extended renown on a Wheaties box and on magazine covers. (The Final Five will appear on boxes of Special K; Kellogg's is an Olympic sponsor this year, not General Mills, maker of Wheaties.) They were showered with endorsement deals and guest spots on television talk shows that lasted far longer than a few weeks, before the public moved on to something else, such as football. But for even the athletes with the most medals, the fame and celebrity hardly lasted a lifetime.
Olympian Mark Spitz - the Michael Phelps before Phelps came along - became a 'stached pinup star in a stars-and-stripes Speedo in the 1970s, his oiled and hairless chest the perfect canvas for seven gold medals. A champion at 22, Spitz enjoyed a slew of post-Olympic endorsement deals that eventually dried up like his time in the pool. Before the Games, he spoke of becoming a dentist. After, not so much. Where is Spitz now? He's a motivational speaker in California.
Etzel earned a gold medal in what he deems "an orphan sport" in 1984, the same year as another West Virginian, Mary Lou Retton. The gymnast, who scored two perfect 10s, was labeled America's sweetheart, one of many over the years. She became the first woman on the Wheaties box, earned a clothing line and endorsement deals with Energizer, hair products company Vidal Sassoon, McDonald's and even the National Bowling Council. Which Retton and her family ended up suing, claiming that her contract was terminated because of changes in her appearance "caused by her maturing as a woman." Where is Retton now? She's a motivational speaker in Houston.
Today, of course, we have a multi-platform pop culture market that chews up celebrities like Chiclets. There's always a need for more, and many Olympic celebrities are happy to oblige. Reality TV, here they come.
"Dancing With the Stars," big on movement, short on chatter, appears to be the default reality venue for Olympians, including speed skater Apolo Ohno (winner of Season 4), ice skater Kristi Yamaguchi (winner of Season 6), and gymnast Shawn Johnson (winner of Season 8).
Making the transition to dramatic work proves more of a challenge, partly because, unlike European soccer stars who can go full Pacino simulating agony on the field, Olympians are trained to keep their composure, though the glaring Phelps Face - an instant meme after he stared down South African rival Chad le Clos - has potential.
Gymnast Gabby Douglas did land a dramatic role in 2014 as Gabby Douglas, the role she was (literally) born to play, in Lifetime's The Gabby Douglas Story.
Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce, is that rare Olympian who has held the nation's interest for much of four decades, first for athletic prowess as the winner of the 1976 decathlon; later for appearing on
, the gold medal of reality shows; and today as the nation's most famous transgender celebrity.
"He had the perfect look and personified every image and stereotype of the male athlete," says Buzz Bissinger, who is writing a memoir with Jenner on the journey from Bruce to Caitlyn. "He came across as humble and articulate and had a very pretty blond wife who had been integral to his success. Unlike today, he was a true amateur. The perfect story line."
Story line seems essential in selling the athlete. When Jenner competed, the Olympics played out against the Cold War "so the medal count was more important vis-a-vis the United States and the Soviet Union," Bissinger says. "It defined who was the world's superpower. The Russians killed us in track and field. It was embarrassing until Jenner saved the US."
But viewers are fickle. The Olympics are the Brigadoon of athletic competition. Our interest remains intense for two weeks every few years, only to go to ground once the Games end. Now, with a hyperactive social media, Olympians are not even guaranteed our undivided attention during the Games.
Moreover, after 120 years, the modern Olympic movement has grown vast. The Summer Games feature more than 40 sports, including "athletics," commonly known as track and field, which comprises almost 50 areas of competition. More than 800 gold medals will be awarded at these Games - not all of them to Phelps. The elite community of living Olympians, past and current, continues to grow, composed largely of people who reap few financial rewards, publicity or spots on reality shows.
Many athletes, especially in less popular sports such as canoe slalom or handball, finish college and launch careers out of the spotlight. But even that can be difficult.
"I tried to channel the same energy I had trying to be an Olympian into the business world," says three-time gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, an NBC Olympics swimming analyst. "But I can tell you it was not easy and there were many days I thought I was a complete failure."
And those who stay in the spotlight often find that it turns into a tabloid glare. Phelps, with more than two dozen medals, more than most nations at the Olympics have earned, is worth an estimated $55 million from multiple endorsement deals. But during a brief retirement from his sport, he also earned boldface ink from two DUIs, a six-month suspension and a stint in rehab before straightening himself out to compete in Rio.
"There are some cases that, because they have such tunnel vision throughout their competitive career, it's sometimes difficult to come out of that when they retire," says Gaines, who did okay himself, having enjoyed a lengthy career as a television sports commentator. But, he notes, "I think that as long as you can fall back on the qualities that got you to the Olympics, and use them in your post-Olympic life, in the long run you will be okay."
The Olympics definitely are rewarding, Etzel contends, just not necessarily financially. Most athletes will never compete at the Olympic Games, he cautions, and "most people at the Olympics don't win medals." They won't earn Phelpsian gold. But that's okay.
"The path," he says, "is the goal, some would say. Everyone who made it to the Olympics should feel good about themselves."
Besides, he says, that gold medal isn't so great. Three decades later, his own "is rusted now. There's not a lot of gold in the gold medal. A jeweller told me it's worth about US$35."