Life cereal may have cornered the market on cute with Little Mikey, but Wheaties has got serious game. For 80 years, the brand has been backing up its reputation as “The Breakfast of Champions” by featuring more than 500 athletes on its box (not all of them on the front). The tradition has been a cherished one amongst Olympic athletes in particular, whose front-and-center presence on a cardboard box full of wheat and bran flakes seems to be as nearly coveted as the gold medal itself. Here’s a brief history of the Olympics, as told by Wheaties boxes.
1. BABE DIDRIKSON (1935)
In 1935, Babe Didrikson—who gold medaled in hurdles and the javelin throw at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles—became the first female athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties (albeit on the back).
2. JESSE OWENS (1936)
Track and field star James “Jesse” Owens, who wowed the crowds by winning four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, was the first black athlete to appear on the cereal box. He made a second appearance in 2003.
3. BOB RICHARDS (1958)
In 1958, two-time Olympic pole vaulting champion (he took home the gold in 1952 and 1956) was the first athlete to make the front of a Wheaties box. But Richards was more than just a familiar mug used to generate sales. In 1956, he was chosen from more than 500 other athletes to serve as the cereal’s spokesperson, a role he continued through 1970. “I saw it more as a mission than a job,” Richards told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “What we did was vastly more important than making money … Now guys like [Michael] Jordan go on and say, ‘You'd better eat your Wheaties,’ but we went around the country talking to people.”
4. BRUCE JENNER (1977)
Before he was an unofficial member of the Kardashian clan, Bruce Jenner actually achieved something: a gold medal in the Decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, which turned him into a pretty major celebrity in the 1980s. So much so that he actually replaced Erik Estrada on CHiPs. (Which was a like totally big deal at the time.)
5. MARY LOU RETTON (1984)
Thirty years ago, gymnast Mary Lou Retton won five medals at the Summer Olympics, which she followed up with yet another impressive achievement when she became the first female athlete to be featured on the front of a Wheaties box. Her beloved mug showed up again in 1999 and 2012.
6. MICHAEL JORDAN (1988)
Michael Jordan was already an NBA superstar—and gold medalist (as part of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games)—by the time he made his first Wheaties appearance, in 1988. He would go on to win yet another gold medal in 1992, at the Barcelona Olympics, where he was the only player to start in all eight games. He would also set a record for Wheaties’ favorite cover boy: 18 appearances (and counting).
7. U.S. WOMEN'S OLYMPIC GYMNASTICS TEAM (1996)
Kerri Strug, Shannon Miller, Amanda Borden, Dominique Moceanu, and Jaycie Phelps were among the young women who made history in 1996 when they became the first American team to win a gold medal in gymnastics, beating out the heavily favored teams from Russia and Romania. Wheaties paid tribute to their victory.
8. JIM THORPE (2001)
It took long enough! Eighty-nine years after he won both the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm (wearing two different shoes he’d rescued from a garbage can after his own kicks were stolen), Jim Thorpe finally made his way to the front of a Wheaties box. Perhaps the delayed accolade was due to the fact that his medals were revoked in 1913, when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Games (a no-no at the time, as only amateurs were allowed to compete). In 1983, 30 years after his passing, the International Olympic Committee decided to restore his titles. Too bad he wasn’t around to savor it!
9. JUSTIN GATLIN (2004)
Two years after winning a gold medal (plus two silvers and one bronze) in Athens in 2004, sprinter Justin Gatlin was hit with a four-year ban on competing after testing positive for steroids. In 2010, he re-emerged, and added yet another bronze medal to his collection at the 2012 London Games.
10. MICHAEL PHELPS (2004)
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In 2004, Michael Phelps—the most successful Olympian of all time, with a total of 22 medals—made his first of two Wheaties box appearances. The second one came in 2012, the same year he retired. He was 27 years old. (Time to start practicing that breaststroke, kids.)
11. LINDSEY VONN (2010)
America’s most decorated skier won the gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics. She’s in Sochi this year, too, but as a correspondent for NBC News.
12. SHAUN WHITE (2010)
A key figure in the transition of snowboarding from daredevil spectacle to Olympic sport, Shaun White won his first gold medal at the 2006 Games in Turin and did it again in Vancouver in 2010.
13. MISTY MAY-TREANOR (2012)
Now retired, Misty May-Treanor is the world’s most successful beach volleyball player, having collected more than 100 championships throughout her career, not to mention the three gold medals she spiked in three consecutive Olympic Games (in 2004 in Athens, 2008 in Beijing, and 2012 in London).