HAS OLYMPIC FAME FOUND ITS NEXT VICTIM?

ATLANTA — The mother and father sat with their hands folded on the long white table. They had never given a press conference before, and they blinked uncomfortably into the TV camera lights.

“Mr. and Mrs. Strug,” a reporter asked, “when did you decide to hire an agent for Kerri?”

The mother looked to the father. The father cleared his throat. Between them sat the reason we were all here, Kerri, their little girl, dressed, as always, in her red, white and blue Olympic sweat suit, her feet barely reaching the floor.

Oh, it may not be politically correct to call Strug a little girl, since she is, as she keeps reminding everyone — in a voice that sounds like a cartoon mouse — 18 years old. But she is still little in many ways, physically (4-feet-9), emotionally (she’s spent most of her life in a gym with preteens) and in the dizzying world of Olympic hype, where she is only a baby.

But growing up fast.

“We wanted an agent who shared our values,” the father said.

The man they chose they’ve known less than a week. He is Leigh Steinberg, the take-no-prisoners agent to multimillionaire NFL quarterbacks such as Troy Aikman and Steve Young. I cannot vouch for his values. But he makes his clients rich.

Steinberg was in the room, to the side of the table, smiling proudly, as if he’d known this girl his whole life, instead of having just punched her in as a meal ticket.

And my immediate thought about Kerri Strug, whose face soon will adorn your Wheaties box, was this: poor kid.

The golden moment

Olympics come, Olympics go, they sweep up many and they blow a few away. Twelve nights ago, we got a wonderful little moment from Strug, where she fought through the pain of an injured ankle and stuck a vault to ensure a gold medal for her gymnastics team. It was dramatic. Inspiring.

But that’s all it was, folks. A nice Olympic moment. It wasn’t a reason for the Earth to stop. You wouldn’t know this from the hype. Strug’s vault has been replayed more than a “Seinfeld” commercial.

Now she sat at a press conference, explaining why she was giving up collegiate gymnastics — which she planned to do until last week — and mulling the “unique financial opportunities” that were pouring in.

“When I came to the Olympics, I wasn’t anybody,” Kerri gushed, “and now, people want my autograph wherever I go. The positive sides seem endless.”

Her parents smiled. Steinberg smiled. And no one was telling her the truth. That this is not real. This does not go on. The reporters go away. The “deals” you sign have ramifications: You have to fly to Houston for that Xerox breakfast, you have to wear your uniform for the thousandth time, you have to talk about that vault to a bunch of Ohio salesmen.

Some of you may read this and say, “So? I’ll take it.” But gymnastics already have robbed this young person of a normal childhood. Now hype may rob her of a normal adulthood.

I have seen it happen. In 1983, I did a story about a young gymnast in Houston. Went to her house. Let her practice driving my rent-a-car, after she begged me. She was unknown and fresh and very much a teenager.

The next time I saw her was a year and a half later. She wore makeup. She spoke about “going for it” and “giving it all you’ve got.” She had agents, managers and a public relations flack who never let her out of her sight. The once-happy teenager — who also won a gold medal, and gave up competing to
“capitalize on opportunities” — seemed stiff and tired.

Her name is Mary Lou Retton.

“I want to be the next Mary Lou,” Kerri Strug said now.

Life of an Olympic hero

Someone asked what she thought she proved in Atlanta, and Strug said, “I think I showed that winning isn’t all that matters.”

This was too much. I took the mike and asked her this: “If you had fallen on your rear end, like the two girls ahead of you, do you think any of this would be happening?”

She swallowed and looked lost, and for a moment I was sorry I had asked. But then it hit me: No one had even told her this. They were all so swept up in the mania that they believed her payday was coming no matter what.

Strug went on to an easier question. I thought about other Olympic
“household names.” Some are fine. But others? Mary Lou has become a cheerleading automaton, Nadia Comaneci seems a little screwy, you talk to Mark Spitz and he’s still bragging about 1972, Carl Lewis lives in his own regal world, Bruce Jenner can’t seem to decide which sex he wants to look like. Rich? Yes. Happy? I’m not so sure.

But that’s the thing about the Olympics. For two weeks, we hold these people close, we talk about them in the mornings over coffee. They become like family. They feel us. We feel them.

But then autumn comes, we’re off to other things, and we leave these stars groping to maintain that high. We leave them to their windfalls and agents and
“unique opportunities.” We can only pray they know what they’re doing.

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