The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin on July 23, one year after the pandemic delayed their start and in the middle of intense protests calling for their cancellation. With only 6 percent of the country vaccinated, health officials have spoken out against hosting fans at the games. Yet the event rolls on, and as new stars emerge out of Olympic trials, brands remain ready to monetize their individual personalities.
Megan Rapinoe, the lavender-haired captain of USA’s soccer team, just announced a partnership with the new Victoria’s Secret, which aims to combat years of its “Angel” marketing with a new campaign that celebrates female achievement.
Her participation in the lingerie company’s do-over raised a few eyebrows when it was announced, and Rapinoe told The New York Times she wondered why the brand “want[ed] to work with me.” But her fashion domination won’t come as much of a surprise to her fans, who have watched her grace the covers of Harper’s Bazaar (wearing Prada) and GQ (alongside her wife Sue Bird, in matching vintage Helmut Lang.)
Eileen Gu, a 17 year-old freestyle skier who will compete for China at the 2022 winter games, is another one of the new VS ambassadors. The high school grad and future Stanford student also reps Tiffany & Co. and Adidas.
That’s impressive on its own, but then consider tennis champion Naomi Osaka: the 23-year-old has beat Serena Williams for the title of highest-paid female athlete in the world, according to Forbes. She made $50 million in endorsements last year; $10 million of that comes from a Nike deal. Levi’s, Louis Vuitton, and Google also enlist her in ads. She wore both Vuitton and Nike for her July Vogue Japan editorial.
Nike has long outbid other sports brands when it comes to athlete sponsorships. Serena Williams has worked with the company since 2003, and it designed the famous catsuit she wore to play the French Open in 2018. When officials banned the one-piece look from the tournament, which is infamous for its strict rules, Nike backed Williams, tweeting, “You can take the hero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”
But other athletes don’t have the same fuzzy feelings for Nike; this year the gymnast Simone Biles left her deal with the brand for Athleta, owned by Gap. “I feel like [Athleta] support[s] me, not just as an athlete, but just as an individual outside of the gym and the change that I want to create, which is so refreshing,” Biles told The Wall Street Journal.
While she didn’t torch Nike on the way out, her move reminded many of the allegations of gender discrimination and harassment at the Oregon-based company, which hit the news in 2018. The next year, a former sponsored runner named Allyson Felix told The New York Times that the brand cut her pay after she had a child and pressured her to return to training without an adequate maternity leave. (The brand has since imposed postpartum protections for its athletes.)
So there is more money to be made from selling your style than competing as a world-class athlete. A new class of Olympic contenders are quickly learning that as they prepare for Tokyo.
Take Christina Clemons, the 31 year-old track star who qualified for the competition last weekend. While dominating the 100-meter hurdles, Clemons sported two earrings shaped like bags of Cool Ranch Doritos.
According to Yahoo Sports, the earrings cost $8 and were from Hot Topic. Clemons may see a huge return on that investment—she told the site that a rep from Doritos had reached out to discuss a potential sponsorship.
Sha’Carri Richardson, who earned her place on the team when she ran a 100-meter dash in 10.86 seconds, has quickly become a fan favorite. She has a powerful personal story—her biological mother died the week before she qualified—and a spirited presence.
This includes her long orange hair and embellished, extra-long nails. According to NBC Sports, Richardson’s girlfriend picked the hair color as it’s “loud and encouraging and dangerous.” But don’t get too used to the hue.
“I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve for my hair, so stay tuned,” Richardson said.
Elle Purrier St. Pierre, who just nabbed a spot on the US track team, is from rural Vermont. According to The New York Times, she drove a tractor to prom. But she deftly understands the power of branding: you won’t catch her running without her gigantic sunglasses, quickly becoming a signature.
Gabby Thomas, another sprinter headed to Tokyo, has also been sponsored by New Balance since 2018. Like Osaka, Thomas has been outspoken about athletes’ burnout. “A lot of people make these conversations about money—this is your job, this is what you do,” she told Runner’s World last month. “But some things are more important than money, and my mental health and emotional well-being is not for sale.”