Olympics-Gold rush begins in earnest for Games' biggest names

VANCOUVER Sun Feb 28, 2010 2:34pm EST

VANCOUVER Feb 28 (Reuters) - Olympic gold medallist and snowboarder Shaun White wants to be known as the "Animal."

"Cash cow" might be a more accurate moniker.

White, with his signature shaggy flame-red mane and death defying twists, emerges from the 2010 Winter Games as the standout personality and probably the most marketable athlete.

The California halfpipe hero was already the top American earner at these Winter Games at $8 million last year, but as he showed with his incomparable Double McTwist 1260 in his gold medal run, he can soar to new heights.

High drama may also pay off for other American athletes.

Lindsey Vonn, the leading lady of U.S. skiing, only won gold in downhill, one of her five Alpine events, but nevertheless added spice to her name when a simmering rivalry with team mate Julia Mancuso boiled over on the slopes.

The blonde Vonn was already winning the Internet popularity contest as the U.S. gold medal athlete earning the most buzz on the Web, according to The Nielsen Company, ahead of White.

Vonn might, however, lose some ski endorsements to new competition from a beguiling Mancuso and a redeemed Bode Miller, who revived a tainted career with three medals.

U.S. figure skater Evan Lysacek can also cash in on scandal after his Russian nemesis Yevgeny Plushenko said he was not gold-medal worthy because he did not perform a quadruple jump.

"To win a medal and be criticised is kind of like a dream," said Robert Boland, professor of sports management at New York University.

"You only want to do it two ways: win and be acclaimed or win and be criticised."

QUEEN YUNA OF KOREA

There was no criticism around another big figure skating name of these Games, the undisputed "Queen Yuna".

The 19-year-old South Korean skater Kim Yuna won the women's gold medal with one of the most mesmerising performances in years and thereby locked in lucrative contracts hanging on her success.

Kim was also one of the top earning athletes heading into Vancouver with $8 million in endorsement deals from sponsors such as Hyundai Motors before the Games. She is so popular in her home country that markets came to a halt while she skated.

Had she returned to Seoul sans medal, however, Kim's fortunes would have seen a large reversal. No one there wanted an also-ran, or also-skated in this case.

Two other skaters, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, came out of nowhere to rescue ice dancing from Olympic oblivion with their classic good looks and a romantic routine.

Even though they say there is no chemistry off the ice, the Canadian champion ice dance pair will be a big draw for marketers.

Already Virtue and Moir were numbers two and three, respectively, in the Canadian Internet buzz contest, surpassed only by Alex Bilodeau.

The Canadian moguls skier might be a marketer's dream because he was the first to win a gold medal on Canadian soil and he did it in a typical Canadian way -- modestly.

Bilodeau credited his brother, who suffers from cerebral palsy, for inspiring him to ski harder and enjoy the ride.

(Editing by Jon Bramley; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)

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