The Post-Olympic Lives of 15 Great Athletes

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Getty Images

Olympic athletes are undoubtedly the best in the world at what they do, but unfortunately "what they do" isn't always all that lucrative once their performances start to slip and endorsements fade. Some athletes choose to stick with their sports in a coaching capacity, while others seek jobs far removed from their Olympic pasts. Here are a few notable examples of summer Olympians who veered away from their sporting careers:

Johnny Weismuller

Olympic Moment: Won a total of five gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Games as part of an undefeated amateur swimming career. Also dabbled in water polo, in which he won a bronze at the 1924 Games.
Post-Games Career: Became an early film star by playing Tarzan in twelve films. (He invented the "Tarzan yell" as we know it.) Weismuller actually took over the role from a fellow Olympian, silver medalist shot putter Herman Brix.

Jesse Owens

Olympic Moment: Upstaging Hitler by destroying the field at the 1936 Games in Berlin.
Post-Games Career: Owens spent some time traveling the country showing off his athletic prowess, but he also ran a dry cleaning business, worked as a gas station attendant, and later traveled as a speaker and goodwill ambassador for the U.S.

George S. Patton

Olympic Moment: Finishing fifth in the first-ever Olympic modern pentathlon, although he might have finished first if not for a scoring controversy in the pistol event.
Post-Games Career: Commanding American troops during World War II as celebrated general "Old Blood and Guts."

Dick Fosbury

Olympic Moment: Won the high jump and set a new Olympic record at the 1968 Mexico City games with his revolutionary back-first "Fosbury Flop."
Post-Games Career: Finished his engineering degree and now owns a civil engineering company in Idaho.

Babe Didrikson

Olympic Moment: Grabbing three track and field medals at the 1932 Los Angeles Games.
Post-Games Career: Took up golf on something of a lark, then became the greatest female golfer of all time. She's still the only woman to ever make the cut at a men's PGA Tour event.

Jerzy Pawlowski

Olympic Moment: Winning five fencing medals for Poland over four Games from 1956 to 1968.
Post-Games Career: Used his status as Poland's top sports start to serve as a spy for the C.I.A. His double life fell apart in 1975, and he spent 10 years in prison.

Kerri Strug

Olympic Moment: Clinching the women's team gold for the American squad with a vault at the 1996 gymnastic finals despite an injured foot.

Post-Games Career: Has worked as an elementary school teacher and later as an employee of the Treasury Department and Justice Department.

Amy Van Dyken

Olympic Moment: Won a total of six gold medals in swimming at the Atlanta and Sydney Games.
Post-Games Career: Van Dyken has served as a sideline reporter for the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks and performed in The Vagina Monologues. She's married to former NFL punter Tom Rouen.

Chris Brasher

Olympic Moment: Ran his way to gold at the 1956 Melbourne Games in the 3000-meter steeplechase.
Post-Games Career: Became a successful sports journalist and rose to become Head of General Features for the BBC before helping to develop the sport of orienteering and making millions in sporting goods. Brasher later co-founded the London Marathon.

Amanda Beard

Olympic Moment: Picked up seven Olympic medals in a swimming career that spanned three Games.

Post-Games Career: Has dabbled in modeling (including an appearance in Playboy) and served as a correspondent for Fox's The Best Damn Sports Show Period. Recently made headlines for claiming she did not want to date Michael Phelps.

Dave Johnson

Olympic Moment: Starred in Reebok's memorable "Dan vs. Dave" commercial campaign prior to the 1992 Games, then won a bronze in the decathlon at Barcelona. (Despite the ad blitz, Dan O'Brien failed to qualify for the Olympics that year.)
Post-Games Career: Johnson returned to Oregon and became an educator, serving as both a high school assistant principal and athletic director.

Kurt Angle

Olympic Moment: Took the gold in the 100 kg wrestling weight class at the 1996 Games.

Post-Games Career: Left the world of amateur wrestling for the glitz of professional wrestling and rang up multiple WWF/E titles.

Alexander Karelin

Olympic Moment: Winning three straight wrestling golds before American Rulon Gardner's stunning upset at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Post-Games Career: Found a prominent place in Russian politics and won election to the State Duma, or lower house of the legislature, in 1999, 2003 and 2007.

Sebastian Coe

Olympic Moment: Won a total of four middle-distance running medals as a British Olympian at the 1980 and 1984 Games.
Post-Games Career: Spent five years in Parliament, then chaired London's successful bid to bring the 2012 Games to England.

Bruce Jenner

Olympic Moment: Winning the gold in the decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Games.
Post-Games Career: Dabbled in film with the colossal bust Can't Stop the Music, a pseudo-biopic of the Village People. (Yes, really.) Later came back into the public eye on the reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which follows the lives of Jenner, his wife, and his stepdaughters.

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Bo Knows Everything: Remembering Nike's Legendary Bo Jackson Ad Campaign

Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Bo Jackson and the "Bo Knows" campaign helped Nike finally overtake Reebook in the early 1990s.
Mike Powell, Allsport/Getty Images

It may have been difficult for Nike to conceive of any athlete being able to do more for its company than Michael Jordan. In the late 1980s and 1990s, the Chicago Bulls star was omnipresent, helping turn their Air Jordan line of sneakers into a squeaky chorus in school hallways and gyms around the country. Even better, the company had scored big with “Just Do It,” an advertising slogan introduced in 1988 that became part of the public lexicon.

There was just one issue. In spite of Jordan’s growing popularity and their innovative advertising, Nike was still in second place behind Reebok. No other athlete on their roster could seemingly bridge the gap. Not even their new cross-training shoe endorsed by tennis pro John McEnroe was igniting excitement in the way the company had hoped.

In 1989, two major events changed all of that: An advertising copywriter was struck with inspiration, and two-sport athlete Bo Jackson slammed a first-inning home run during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. The ad man’s idea was to portray Jackson as being able to do just about anything. Jackson went ahead and proved him right.

 

Bo Jackson was an ideal spokesperson for Nike's new line of cross-training sneakers. The Auburn University graduate was making waves as a rare two-sport pro athlete; he was playing baseball for the Kansas City Royals and football for the Los Angeles Raiders. Early commercials featured Jackson sampling other sporting activities like riding a bike. “Now, when’s that Tour de France?” he asked. In another, he dunked a basketball and pondered the potential of “Air Bo.”

At a Portland bar near Nike’s headquarters one evening, Nike vice president of marketing Tom Clarke and Jim Riswold of ad agency Wieden + Kennedy were pondering how best to use Jackson going forward. Clarke wanted to devote the majority of their budget for the cross-trainers to an ad campaign featuring the athlete. The two started lobbing ideas about other people named Bo—Bo Derek, Beau Brummell, Little Bo Peep, and Bo Diddley, among others.

The last one stuck with Riswold. He thought of a phrase—“Bo, you don’t know Diddley”—and went home to sleep on it. When he woke up the next morning, he was able to sketch out an entire commercial premise in minutes. Riswold envisioned a spot in which Jackson would try his hand at other sports, punctuating each with a “Bo Knows” proclamation. Jackson soon realizes the one thing he can’t do is play guitar with Bo Diddley, the legendary musician.

It took longer to shoot the commercial than to conceive of it. The spot was shot over the course of a month, with the crew going to California, Florida, and Kansas to film cameos with other athletes including Jordan, McEnroe, and Wayne Gretzky—all of whom Nike had under personal appearance contracts.

Fearing Jackson might hurt himself trying to skate, the production filmed him from the knees up sliding around in socks at a University of Kansas gymnasium rather than on ice. But not all attempts at caution were successful. When director Joe Pytka grew frustrated that Jackson kept running off-camera and implored him to move in a straight line, Jackson steamrolled both the equipment and Pytka, who had to tend to a bloody nose before continuing.

In portraying any other athlete this way, the campaign may have come off as stretching credulity. But Jackson had already been improving his game in all areas, hitting a 515-foot home run during a spring training win over the Boston Red Sox. In April, he hit .282 and tallied eight home runs. Even when he struck out, he still stood out: Jackson was prone to breaking his bat over his knee in frustration.

 

After Jackson was voted into the 1989 MLB All-Star Game in July, Nike decided the telecast would be the ideal place to debut their Bo Knows campaign. They handed out Bo Knows pennants for fans and even flew Bo Knows signs overhead. Bo Knows appeared in a full-page spot for USA Today. Even by Nike standards, this was big.

There was, of course, a chance Jackson would be in a bat-breaking mood, which might diminish the commercial’s impact. But in the very first inning, Jackson sent one into the stands off pitcher Rick Reuschel. With a little scrambling, Nike was able to get their ad moved up from the fourth inning, where it was originally scheduled to run. In the broadcast booth, announcer Vin Scully and special guest, former president Ronald Reagan, marveled at Jackson’s prowess. Scully reminded viewers that his pro football career was something Jackson once described as a “hobby.”

A Bo Jackson fan is pictured holding up a 'Bo Knows Baseball!' sign at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989
A Bo Jackson fan shows his support at the MLB All-Star Game in Anaheim, California on July 11, 1989.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Jackson was named the Most Valuable Player of the game. That summer and into the fall, Bo Knows was quickly moving up the ranks of the most pervasive commercial spots in memory, second only to Jordan’s memorable ads for Nike and McDonald’s. Jackson turned up in sequels, trying his hand at everything from surfing to soccer to cricket. Special effects artists created multiple Bo Jacksons, a seemingly supernatural explanation for why he excelled at everything.

It was a myth, but one rooted in reality. After 92 wins with the Royals as a left-fielder in 1989, Jackson reported for the NFL season that fall as a running back for the Raiders. In one three-game stretch, he ran for over 100 yards each. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in November, Jackson ran 92 yards for a touchdown. He finished the season with 950 rushing yards. That winter, he was named to the Pro Bowl, making him the only athlete to appear in two all-star games for two major North American sports in consecutive seasons.

Nike was staggered by the results of Bo Knows, which helped them leap over Reebok to become the top athletic shoe company. They eventually secured 80 percent of the cross-training shoe market, going from $40 million in sales to $400 million, a feat that executives attributed in large part to Jackson. Bo Knows, bolstered by Jackson’s demonstrated versatility, was the perfect marriage of concept and talent. His stature as a spokesperson rose, and he appeared in spots for AT&T and Mountain Dew Sport, earning a reported $2 million a year for endorsements. A viewer survey named him the most persuasive athlete in advertising. If that weren’t enough, Jackson also appeared in the popular Nintendo Entertainment System game Tecmo Bowl and on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1989.

 

In 1991, Jackson suffered a serious hip injury during a Raiders game, one that permanently derailed his football career. He played three more seasons of baseball with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels before retiring from sports in 1994.

Jackson's relationship with Nike was dissolved soon after, though the company never totally abandoned the concept of athletes wading into new territory. In 2004, a campaign depicted big names sampling other activities. Tennis great Andre Agassi suited up for the Boston Red Sox; cyclist Lance Armstrong was seen boxing; Serena Williams played beach volleyball. The Bo Knows DNA ran throughout.

Jackson still makes periodic references to the campaign, including in advertisements for his Bo Jackson Signature Foods. (“Bo Knows Meat,” the website proclaims.) In 2019, Jackson also appeared in a Sprint commercial that aimed for surrealism, with Jackson holding a mermaid playing a keytar and having a robot intone that “Bo does know” something about cell phone carriers.

The other key Bo—Diddley—never quite understood why the campaign worked. After seeing the commercial, he reportedly said that he was confused because it had nothing to do with shoes.