Michael Phelps may have the most Olympic medals of any athlete, ever—but, guess what, he didn't exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to being a celebrity out of the pool.
Meaning, the record-smashing champion—awe-inspiring as he may be—is just one in a long, long, long line of men and women whose skills (or, at times, their antics or amazing B-movies) have resulted in their being added to the annals of pop culture, regardless of their medal tallies.
A hefty amount of gold helps, of course—as do winning smiles, eight-pack abs, unreal arms, legs that encourage belief in the possibility of human flight and the ability to capture hearts with a few soundbites. But, especially these days, you never quite know just what is going to make people remember an athlete, for better or worse.
So, with the 2012 London Olympics just two weeks away, take a look back at how Hollywood, the media, clothing companies and the makers of breakfast cereal have been capitalizing on these quadrennial favorites for the last 100 years!
1912: Football, baseball and basketball pro Jim Thorpe—widely considered to be the premier athlete of the 20th century and later immortalized by Burt Lancaster in Jim Thorpe: All-American—ended up being way ahead of his time, but in an unfortunate way. The winner of the pentathlon and decathlon in Stockholm (legend has it he said, "Thanks, King," when Gustav V called him the greatest athlete in the world), Thorpe was stripped of his medals in 1913 after officials ruled his two seasons of minor-league baseball broke the Games' amateurs-only policy. (He was making a whopping $2 a day as a pro.) The medals were restored to him posthumously in 1983 and his name lives on, both in history and on celluloid.
1924: British runners Harold Abramson and Eric Liddell traveled different roads on their way to Olympic gold in the 100-meter and 400-meter track-and-field events. But the 1981 classic Chariots of Fire made sure that their stories met in the middle (and that they had the most well-known running music ever).
1924-1928: Austro-Hungarian hunk Johnny Weissmuller won five gold medals for swimming—and Hollywood took notice. MGM cast the BVD swimwear model in Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932, and the brawny stud eventually made a dozen Tarzan films, five more for MGM and six for RKO. Weissmuller also starred in the live extravaganza Billy Rose's Aquacade with swimstress Esther Williams (who lost her shot at an Olympics appearance when World War II broke out) during the 1939-40 New York World's Fair.
1928-1936: Four years after making her Olympics debut at age 11, Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie won the first of her three consecutive gold medals in 1928—but it was her glamorous persona that made the One in a Million star Hollywood's highest paid actress in the mid-1930s and landed her the July 1939 cover of Time. Even Adolf Hitler was a big fan. Alas, she was known for being a fan of his, too, which is why her film career was the next thing to end up on ice.
1932: You thought the guy in Ted was the real Flash Gordon? How about Buster Crabbe, whose gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle (not to mention his dimples) put Hollywood on notice. He was a regular lord of the film serials, first as Tarzan, then as Flash Gordon in 1936, and then as sci-fi hero Buck Rogers—the three most popular comic-strip heroes in the 1930s.
1932: Japan's Takeichi Nishi won gold in show jumping with his horse Uranus. Fifteen years later, he was a baron in the Imperial Army when he was killed on Iwo Jima. Sixty-one years after that, he was played by Tsuyoshi Ihara in Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima.
1932: Eddie Tolan, nicknamed the "Midnight Express," won gold in the 100- and 200-meter track events—and then went on to perform with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in vaudeville. Berlin Olympics legend Jesse Owens later credited Tolan as an inspiration.
1932: Two-time gold-medalist speed skater Irving Warren Jaffee stumped for Camel cigarettes a couple years later. The ad read, "It takes healthy nerves for Jaffee to be the world's champion skater; steady smokers turn to Camels." Yeah, that sort of thing doesn't happen anymore.
1936: At pal Hitler's request, German filmmaker (and dancer-actress before that) Leni Riefenstahl—who had previously directed the notorious propaganda piece Triumph of the Will—filmed the Berlin Games. The result, along with footage she shot in Greece where the original Olympics took place, became the renowned documentary Olympia—a pioneering work that influenced modern sports photography. She was later arrested—supposedly by On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who was tasked with intelligence work while traveling with John Ford's documentary crew—in Austria and was accused, but never convicted, of being a Nazi collaborator.
1936: Olympia included footage of sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens' mighty, Hitler-irking, four-gold-medal performance that instantly made him a real American hero—and his legacy as a game-changer was assured the second he crossed his first finish line.
1948-1952: Two time decathlon winner Bob Matthias eventually became a U.S. congressman representing California—but first, he was on the short-lived adventure series The Troubleshooters and in B-movies like China Doll with Victor Mature and It Happened in Athens with Jayne Mansfield.
1960: Sprinter Wilma Rudolph overcame a twisted left foot caused by polio and won three gold medals. She was deemed the fastest woman in the world—and Denzel Washington's second-ever acting role was playing her husband, Robert Eldridge, in the 1977 TV movie Wilma, starring Shirley Jo Finney as the titular track legend.
1960: A young boxer by the name of Cassius Clay won light-heavyweight gold. He didn't change his name to Muhammad Ali for another five years, but the superstar writing was already on the wall. Will Smith played the legend in Ali.
1960: Decathlon winner Rafer Johnson had to turn down a role in Spartacus so that he could remain an amateur athlete (apparently acting in a Hollywood movie would have made him a professional?) and thereby compete in the Rome Olympics. At least he won—and he started acting regularly the following year. Credits include the 007 installment License to Kill and numerous TV appearances.
1968: Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalist in the 200-meter sprint, raised a ruckus and were stripped of their medals after raising their black-gloved fists in a symbolic salute during the medal ceremony, an iconic image from the Mexico City Games.
1968: Trey Anastasio's catchy-bordering-on-creepy tune "Peggy" is about figure skater Peggy Fleming, winner of the U.S.' only gold medal that year.
1968: Dashing French skier Jean-Claude Killy, aka "the Chocolate Kitty," won three gold medals in Grenoble and then cashed in on his suave-Frenchman allure, playing a thickly accented ski instructor in 1972's Snow Job and being sponsored by champagne purveyor Moët & Chandon. Best of all, though, he played himself in the 1983 comedy Copper Mountain, starring (paging Netflix!) Jim Carrey and Alan Thicke.
1972: Swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals, but his—and everybody's—celebration was cut short. The massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches at the Munich Games was chronicled in the documentary One Day in September and Steven Spielberg tackled the bloody aftermath of the attack in his Oscar-nominated Munich.
1976: She didn't medal, but equestrienne Princess Anne, daughter of Queen Elizabeth II, is the only member of the British royal family to have ever competed in the Olympics. Which means Kate Middleton's aunt-by-marriage is an Olympian.
1976: At 14, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comâneci received the first-ever 10 in the modern era on the uneven bars en route to six more 10s, plus gold medals in the all-around, the uneven bars and the balance beam. With all that fire in her belly, you wonder why she was such a let-down on Celebrity Apprentice.
1976: A fellow named Bruce Jenner won the decathlon and was on the Wheaties box when being on the Wheaties box really meant something! We hear Jenner—an avid golfer and motivational speaker—is doing a reality show these days. At least, that's what we hear. It's hard to keep up.
1976: Kurt Thomas didn't medal as a member of the U.S. gymnastics team, but he did battle ninjas in the martial arts riotfest Gymkata.
1976: On the cold side, figure skater Dorothy Hamill won gold—and so did her bob haircut, which became the short 'do of the late 1970s.
1980: The feel-good film Miracle was about the "Miracle on Ice"—aka the U.S. ice hockey team's semifinal victory over the Soviet Union—at Lake Placid.
1984: Since cable coverage was pretty spotty back in the 19th century, NBC opted to dramatize what went down at the Games of the I Olympiad in the miniseries The First Olympics: Athens, 1896, starring David Ogden Stiers, David Caruso, Angela Lansbury and Louis Jordan.
1984: Mary Lou Retton won all-around gymnastics gold and became the first female athlete to appear on the Wheaties box, only 60 years after the cereal was rolled out by General Mills.
1984: The gold-winning U.S. men's gymnastics team was headed up by Mitch Gaylord, who went on to marry (and later divorce) Playboy Playmate Deborah Driggs, star in American Anthem and serve as Chris O'Donnell's stunt double in Batman Forever.
1984-1988: Figure-skating gold medalist Katarina Witt was the toast of Sarajevo and Calgary, then modeled and showed up on TV shows like Arli$$ and in films like Jerry Maguire and Ronin. But the final confirmation that Witt was superhot came in 1998, when she stripped down for Playboy. It was the second-ever issue of the decades-old magazine to sell out, the first being the inaugural issue which featured nude pics of Marilyn Monroe.
1984-1988: Greg Louganis had won four gold medals in springboard and platform diving when he revealed in 1995 via his memoir, Breaking the Surface, that he had been diagnosed with HIV in 1988. Following Magic Johnson's reveal, Louganis opening up about his journey and battle with the disease represented another huge step at the time for AIDS awareness and education.
1984-1996: Track-and-field legend Carl Lewis started his impressive streak of Olympic appearances in L.A. with four gold medals, kept it up in Seoul with two more golds and a silver, earned two more golds in Barcelona and then miraculously won the long jump in Atlanta at the age of 35. The high-flying stud has of course played himself on TV and in movies, and he's name-checked in N.W.A.'s "100 Miles and Runnin'" and Biz Markie's "Nobody Beats the Biz." (Oh, and his superhuman streak would have started in 1980, but the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games.)
1988: Figure skater Brian Boitano won gold, but no one ever really wondered what he would do until Kyle, Stan and Cartman inexplicably asked that very question in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. That got the Food Network thinking, and What Would Brian Boitano Make? premiered in 2009.
1988: Calgary hosted the debut of the first-ever Jamaican bobsled team, the charming underdogs dramatized by Disney in Cool Runnings.
1992: Future Dancing WIth the Stars champ Kristi Yamaguchi won figure skating gold.
1992-1996: It's amazing Gail Devers still won sprinting gold with those nails! It seems like they would cause drag.
1992-2000: Already a gold medalist as a member of the U.S. men's 4-x-400-meter relay team in Barcelona, Michael Johnson positively dazzled as a solo sprinter in Atlanta. And not just because he was fast! He had gold shoes!
1992: Reebok's Dan vs. Dave campaign leading up to Barcelona, featuring eventual bronze-medal-winning decathlete Dave Johnson and Dan O'Brien, who didn't even medal that year, was—needless to say—a bust.
1992: The U.S. basketball "Dream Team," made up of every NBA superstar playing at the time, from Larry Bird to Michael Jordan, dominated the competition—and "dream team" became a handy way to describe any impressive group of people. It was used just a couple years later, in fact, to describe murder suspect O.J. Simpson's coterie of high-priced defense attorneys.
1994: Oksana Baiul won the gold, but figure skating's only story line was Nancy Kerrigan getting clubbed in the knee that year in an attack orchestrated by fellow Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding's ex-husband and a friend. Nancy won silver, Tonya broke a lace on her skate. Nancy got to host Saturday Night Live, Tonya has been the butt of jokes ever since.
1996: Dan O'Brien finally equaled the hype, winning the decathlon, getting the Wheaties box, etc. Then he was free to show off his, er, discus and pole-vaulting muscles in a very revealing Versace campaign.
1996: Kerri Strug's infamous second vault, which helped the U.S. women's team secure gold but resulted in her being carried to the podium, was her ticket to parody heaven. She made an upright appearance on Beverly Hills 90210, but the SportsCenter commercial featuring the anchors carrying the wee gymnast around the studio was better.
1998: Gold medalist Johnny Moseley helped teach the world what the heck moguls were (it had only debuted at the Olympics in 1992) and then schooled a bunch of overheated reality stars for several seasons as host of the Real World/Road Rules Challenge.
2000-2004: Season 11 Biggest Loser contestant Rulon Gardner won Greco-Roman wrestling's 130-kilogram class in Sydney and bronze in the 120-kilogram class in Athens, but his weight had obviously ballooned out of his control by last year. The injury-plagued Olympian announced he was trying to whip himself into shape for London, but ultimately took himself out of contention.
2000: Track star Marion Jones was stripped of all five of the medals she won in Sydney after she tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2006 and later admitted to lying to federal investigators about using banned substances before the Olympics. She had to forfeit all of the medals she had earned in competition since 2000 and then spent six months in prison.
2002: Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno started his journey with a gold in the 1500-meter race. He has since draped seven other medals around his neck en route to becoming the most decorated Winter Olympics athlete of all time. And, of course, he was the first Olympian to hoist Dancing With the Stars' mirror-ball trophy.
2004-2008: Lest we forget, Michael Phelps had already won six gold medals in Athens, but he really blew it out of the water in Beijing. His eight gold medals were the most ever won in one Olympics, and he is now the most decorated Olympian of all time. Then came the Subway, the Kelloggs, the Visa, the Omega watches, the PureSport beverage, et al. But despite the boon it could have been for sales of Frosted Flakes, Kellogg dropped Phelps after a photo surfaced in 2009 of him holding a bong. Maybe Phelps will think twice about turning down General Mills next time.
2006-2010: Having already conquered the X Games as "the Flying Tomato," snowboarding superstar Shaun White made his Olympics debut in Turin—and subsequently dominated the halfpipe. He got his own videogame, the craftily titled Shaun White Snowboarding, in 2008, and then mastered the halfpipe again in Vancouver. Talk about not bothering to tip the scales in one's favor—the well-endorsed, Rolling Stone-fronting heartthrob only competes in that one event. Dude! White also did a decent job playing himself in Friends With Benefits with Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis.
2008: Shawn Johnson, winner of balance-beam gold and a member of the silver-ranking U.S. women's gymnastics team, went on to win the eighth season of Dancing With the Stars.
2010: Years after Springfield lost its bid to host the Olympics because Bart roasted the shorts off of the visiting countries, Marge and Homer win curling gold in Vancouver. Bob Costas' voice was along for the wacky ride.
2010: Evan Lysacek won figure-skating gold but only managed second place againt Nicole Scherzinger on Dancing With the Stars.
2012: Phelps' media-appointed No. 1 rival, Ryan Lochte, appeared on the June cover of Vogue with golden soccer goalie Hope Solo (another DWTS alum) and two-time doubles gold medalist Serena Williams (her foray into the other type of celebrity includes an appearance on Law & Order: SVU). So not only is Lochte playing the role of possible Phelps spoiler in London, he's also the summer's designated pretty boy!
2012: Two words: Oscar Pistorius . A few more words: Cheetah Flex-Foot carbon-fiber transtibial artificial limbs. A double amputee who was born without fibulae, the South African runner—whose nickname is "Blade Runner," for endorsements' sake!—just made his national team to go to London. This unbelievable guy is one to watch, root for and eventually buy Nike products from.