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Charge! Usain Bolt vs. The Ash Heap Of Olympic History

By Jess Collen

Aly Raisman just signed with Poland Spring. Gabby Douglas’s hairstyle is big news. But otherwise, the Olympic media-blitz let-down is in full bloom. Prime time is no longer filled with beach volleyball and freestyle relays. But brand managers are betting that the accomplishments and names of the athletes are still fresh in our minds.

The “ash heap“ metaphor tries to relegate bad things to their inevitable home. Ronald Regan wanted to put the communists there. Most recently, Moammar Khadafy wanted to put his government’s enemies there. So, in fairness, that’s not really a proper fate to associate with former Olympic heroes. However, the shiny gold of Olympians will fade and disappear.

But maybe not, if you are one of the most electrifying Olympic performers of all time, Usain Bolt. In Beijing, he won three gold medals. Those games concluded on August 24, 2008. By September 4, 2008, he had filed two applications for trademark registrations. Those two marks have since registered, and he has another one pending. Bolt still has a long career — and gargantuan endorsements — ahead of him. The goods and services he wants to protect are extensive, as they should be. Clothing, publications, endorsements, sports drinks. In all, over a hundred different items. The only question is why no one filed this application before Beijing!

For others, it’s a more formidable task to turn Olympic gold into the real thing.

A company called SponsorHub calculates the potential value of celebrity and athletes endorsements. They look at their accomplishments on the field as well as at their personalities and social media presence. They estimate that the Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps “brands” could generate up to $50 million a year. Usain will still be competing, making it much easier to reinforce his brand value.

Swimmer Ryan Lochte has filed an application to secure federal trademark rights to his catch phrase “Jeah.” He’s not even sure what it means, but that’s not stopping him from making plans to slap it on T-shirts, hats, water bottles, posters, key chains, swimming goggles and DVD workout videos. He’s already selling “Jeah “ sunglasses on his website. The standard pair goes for $15. Autographed “special editions” will set you back $100. You can’t stop people from using the word to express, well, whatever it is they are expressing. But if you are the first to use it on a product, it is yours alone.

This got me to thinking — are trademark registrations an indication of fame or success? So I looked at the government records. (Among trademark lawyers, this passes for entertainment. Really.)

Consider Bruce Jenner, first known as the world’s greatest athlete, and now known as father to the Kardashian clan, and owner once of Olympic Gold and now owner of the world’s most parodied bronzed skin, taking over the title from George Hamilton. (I took the deposition of Hamilton once, by the way, and he was a wonderfully charming fellow and not nearly as bronze as his reputation.)

Bruce Jenner registered his name as a trademark in 1978, following his 1976 Olympic triumph. But that registration was cancelled within six years for failure to prove continued use. In his renaissance, he has two new applications pending for being a spokesperson, for making personal appearances, and for a website. In his case, it is hard to know how much his Olympic fame can take credit, and how much goes to reality TV. Without one there may not have been the other.

Mary Lou Retton, another all-around gold medalist, still has a trademark registration as a motivational speaker.

Mark Spitz had a registration for underwear and a swimming pool company. That was after his 1972 success. Things would have been quite different today.

Back to Michael Phelps? There are a couple registrations. There was also an application in 2008 covering a long list of clothing. But the registration was refused by the Trademark Office. Oh, yes that’s right. It was filed by someone named Wen Yi Wu. The Trademark Office thought there might be a small issue of “false connection.”

But then there is gymnast Carly Patterson, 2004’s Gabby Douglas when she won the all-around gold. And not a trademark application to be found.

The last gold medalist, Nastia Liukin? She filed a trademark application, and it was allowed, but no use ever was proven and so no registration ever issued. Was she able to cash in? Don’t know.

Remember swimmer Janet Evans? Medalist in 1988 and 1992? No trademark registrations to her name.

There are a few Olympians with less gold medals but some pretty good recognition. Serena Williams has managed to do OK from her fame, and even a couple trademark registrations to boot. Then again, she does have as many golds (4) as Jesse Owens (whose heirs operate the Jesse Owens Foundation — a registered trademark).

Gold medal gymnast Gabby Douglas is the latest to join an elite coterie of American gymnasts who have won the individual all around competition. Will she make tens of millions of dollars over the course of her career by managing her name (and image) strategically? Unfortunately, her estranged parents are apparently already fighting over the spoils of her success, and a strong personal brand should insure there will be lots to fight over. Douglas could expect to make between $8 million and $12 million over the next four years.

For the first time, sponsors are also trying to figure out how social media weighs into popularity and dollars.

From the ESPN Blog: Douglas ranks No. 4 in social media buzz among Olympians, after Michael Phelps, British diver Tom Daley and Ryan Lochte, according to analytics company Bluefin Labs. There were 647,000 comments about her on August 2, the day she won the all-around gold.

No doubt, many Olympic names became big brands. But for great longevity, maybe the jury is still out. There are few gold medal winners to match the success of AIR JORDAN. M.J. had 2 gold medals (1984 and 1992) and has filed dozens of trademark applications.