LONDON (Reuters) - When fencer Ruben Limardo set off for the London Olympics, he little imagined that he would be cheered through the streets of the Venezuelan capital Caracas on top of a truck on his return, and honored by the president.
Nor could Shin A-lam have known that a tearful, lonely hour sobbing over the loss of her bout would make her known to millions and put fencing on the map in South Korea.
Many of London’s medalists will see success rewarded with money and glory in their home countries, but just as many have won hearts and lifted spirits with their determination, dignity or sheer hard luck.
Limardo’s gold, in individual epee, was Venezuela’s first for 44 years. President Hugo Chavez gave him a replica of the sword used by South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
Limardo also charmed London and beyond by wearing his medal on the capital’s Underground system, posing for photos with passengers and teaching them Venezuelan sports chants. The U.S. news and gossip site Gawker said a picture posted online was “the best Olympics photo yet”.
South Korea felt a surge of sympathy for Shin, who sat in tears in a pool of light after losing her semi-final, refusing to leave the piste because to step off would have meant accepting the judges’ ruling.
Tweets and Facebook postings took her side but fencing itself had stepped out of the shadows in South Korea, and media reported that suddenly everyone wanted to learn the sport.
Her countryman Yang Hak-seon took over the sports pages not only for winning South Korea’s first gymnastics gold, with a vault that he invented, but also because it emerged that he had used his training money to support his family, so poor that they had for a while lived in a greenhouse on a farm.
His reward? 100 million won ($90,000) from his federation, and ramen noodles for life from a sponsor.
Far greater fame and riches are already assured for some of the Olympics’ biggest names.
American gymnast Gabby Douglas became her country’s Olympic sweetheart overnight with her individual all-round gold and her winning smile.
Her face was appearing on cornflake packets within hours of her victory and experts put her earnings potential at between $5 million and $10 million over the next four years.
“The gold medal alone doesn’t get you to first base in marketing - it’s the persona that goes with it,” said Lynn Lashbrook, a sports agent in Portland, Oregon.
“I can’t think of another person in this category: female, young, articulate, great smile, this is unique.”
U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin, at 17 a year older than Douglas, made headlines for choosing a very different path.
Likeable, telegenic and winner of four golds in London, she has turned her back on endorsements so that she can keep having fun as an amateur in U.S. college swimming.
China’s Olympians would once have been feted at home as standard-bearers for communism, but can nowadays look forward to material rewards as well as national adulation.
Lin Dan has become “Super-Dan” in the Chinese media for successfully defending his badminton title.
At the same time, he boosted the share price of the team’s sponsor, the sporting goods firm founded by 1984 gymnastics triple gold medalist Li Ning, by 12 percent overnight.
Compatriot Sun Yang, winner of two swimming golds, is similarly attractive to Chinese sponsors and sports fans alike. The number of his followers on Sina Weibo, China’s popular Twitter-like microblog, has jumped by 2.5 million since the start of the Olympics - dwarfing even Usain Bolt’s following.
Four wrestlers and weightlifters will have to make do with adulation and more prosaic rewards for bringing golden glory to Iran in sports in which the nation has traditionally excelled.
The government has promised each of them 90 gold coins and civil service jobs, but has outlawed endorsements as un-Islamic since former Olympic weightlifting champion Hossein Rezazadeh appeared in a commercial that aired on a banned satellite channel.
Winning gold in a sport that your country thinks of as its own is often a way to glory.
The young, handsome Aron Szilagyi is already being touted at home as the heir to a great lineage of Hungarian fencers.
Commentator Mariann Horvath, herself a multiple world champion in fencing, burst into tears on live television when he won his bout, declaring: “Aron Szilagyi is Olympic champion! ... At age 22, he’s almost a child!”
Japan, the inventor of judo, is lamenting the fact that its men’s team will go home without a gold for the first time since the sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1964.
Attention turned instead to Japan’s women’s soccer team. Football authorities sparked a minor scandal by giving the women economy class flights to London while the men flew business class. If the women win Thursday’s final, public opinion is sure to get them an upgrade.
Failure does not have to mean criticism back home.
The image that has gripped Italy is the shocked, vulnerable face of former champion Federica Pellegrini, known for appearing naked on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine with her fellow swimmer boyfriend, slumped in the water after failing to take a medal in her signature 200m freestyle.
Sport-crazy Australia finally has its heroes after hurdler Sally Pearson and track cyclist Anna Meares won the country’s first individual golds of 2012 but it had already been inclined to forgive its great swimming hope, James Magnussen, who failed by 0.01 seconds to land the gold that he had loudly promised.
“Even the fact you failed, it has got you the immediate attention,” said marketing expert Andrew Hughes at the Australian National University. “He is still very marketable, because he has got a natural, fresh appeal to him which makes people notice.”
France likes its heroes to be intellectual, and has found the perfect one in Yannick Agnel, the swimmer who grabbed gold from the United States on the last leg of the 4x100m freestyle relay, then added an individual sprint gold.
Agnel reads poetry in his spare time, is learning Russian for fun and speaks like an intellectual.
“Being an Olympic champion is my dream...but being a writer must be nice too,” he told Paris Match magazine.
For many countries with less history of Olympic success, any medal is a cause for national celebration.
In Afghanistan, people put aside war worries momentarily to crowd into cafes normally closed for Ramadan fasting and cheer on taekwondo fighter Rohullah Nikpah, who four years ago won the country’s first Olympic medal, a bronze.
Five-times world boxing champion Mary Kom led the front page of the Times of India for securing a bronze that guaranteed her country its biggest medal haul. Online, many expressed hope that she could help to boost the integration of her poor, neglected home region of Manipur with the rest of India.
Irish boxer Katie Taylor carries her adoring nation’s hopes not only for her unquestioned skill but also because of the taint that hangs over Ireland’s last gold medals, the three won in 1996 by swimmer Michelle Smith, who was later suspended in a doping controversy.
“It’s important for Irish sport to show we can do it on our own merits, without the drugs,” said 70-year-old former boxer Pat O‘Hare, waiting for a train in Dublin.
Reporting by Reuters correspondents in Europe, Asia and the Americas; Editing by Clare Fallon