Tonya, Nancy and the Big Sell


Boston -- Just when you thought the kudzu-like plot of the Nancy and Tonya story couldn't grow any thicker or faster, along comes a sturdy little subplot. Outside the rinks and the courts, there are visible sprouts of another rivalry, between Reebok and Nike.

Ever since Nike's president put up $25,000 for the defense of Ms. Harding, tongues have been wagging. Are the folks at Nike really anteing up for truth and justice? Or are they trying to stick it to Reebok? Since Reebok has Nancy to endorse their goods, does Nike want to endorse Tonya as an opponent?

This is a subplot that only a cynic could love. But the wholesale transformation of athletes into actors vying for the starring role in ads has made cynicism obsolete.

It is taken as a given in this sorry tale that the real gold Tonya and Nancy are going for is the big fat pot of endorsement money. Even Tonya openly and misguidedly shared her Olympic fantasy saying, "There are little dollar signs spinning around my head."

Now, amateur analysts pin Ms. Harding's supposed bitterness on the way she was "denied" endorsements. They say this as if successful athletes were entitled to take their rightful place in the realm of the 30-second ad world.

In the other camp, Kerrigan trackers declare that she's a winner before she gets on the Norwegian ice. Why? Because her agent's phone hasn't stopped ringing with offers.

Well, I wasn't around in 1907 when Ty Cobb first pitched Coca-Cola. I can't remember the champions that Wheaties was the breakfast of. I can barely remember Joe Namath in his pantyhose. But I am aware that Michael Jordan made $28 million last year -- roughly eight times his outrageous basketball salary -- for selling. So, I'm not naive about sports and ads.

But I am struck anew by the way everything -- entertainment, sports, even politics -- seems to have merged together into one infomercial. And by the way we accept it all.

In the movies, every soft drink that appears now is duly labeled as if it were -- and it is -- a paid ad. On television, kids' programs may be little more than commercials for the products that star in them. At tennis matches and golf tournaments, players clad in products swinging products compete for cups named after products.

In Hollywood, actress Candice Bergen goes from Murphy Brown to Sprint. In Orlando, athlete Shaquille O'Neal goes from the Magic to Pepsi. Meanwhile, Susan Powter starts out with an ad and ends up a best-selling "author." It's a small world in which victory goes to the one with the highest Q rating.

The only time we seem to notice the subtle merchandising of everyone is when politicians such as Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle move from selling themselves in campaign ads to selling Pepsi or potato chips. Or when Kathleen Sullivan "violates" the standards of the news profession that dumped her by pushing Weight Watchers.

The speed with which this has happened among athletes is record-breaking. And, yes, depressing. Even Nova Lanktree, who brokers sports figures for commercials, remembers when athletes "used to be called heroes or legends." Now, she says, they are called stars. They share this firmament with entertainers, all twinkling for ad dollars.

How long ago was it when we complained that Soviet athletes were supported by the state? They pledged allegiance to socialism. Our own are supported by sneakers, colas and hamburgers. They pledge allegiance to consumerism.

The real winners and losers become those who do and don't have the right stuff. The stuff to be successful at sales.

Tonya loyalists are absolutely right in noting that women who win endorsements fit a too narrow, pretty, feminine, Dorothy Hamill, Chris Evert and yes, Nancy Kerrigan mold. No tough girls need apply.

But when all is said and done -- soon, I hope -- the sorriest spectacle is not just Tonya v. Nancy, or Nike v. Reebok. It's the grand-slam takeover by companies who award the real gold medals. In this world every accomplishment has the same value: a market value. What you can do is only worth what you can sell.

Any day now, the cameras will move from this seamy drama to the glamorous one at Lillehammer. Light the torch high. Welcome to the XVIIth Olympiad -- the ultimate infomercial.

Let the ads begin.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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