Lindsey Vonn’s announcement that she is pulling out of the Sochi Olympics because of her injured right knee robbed the Winter Games of arguably its biggest star and left television partners and sponsors scrambling to answer the question: What marquee names actually will be competing for the United States?
Snowboarder Shaun White is arguably the public face of the U.S. team, but precious few others could make a case for that mantle now that Vonn, the gold medalist skier with the runway-ready looks, has joined a list of marketable American winter athletes either injured, retired or not in top form.
“It’s really unfortunate for the Olympics,” said Marlene Morris Towns, teaching professor of marketing at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. “So much of what people are interested in besides pure athletics are the personal stories, and so many of these people we get to know Olympics after Olympics, and we keep track of them. She has such a personal story, and people have been rooting for her to get back.”
White, the red-haired cult figure who won gold in the halfpipe in each of the past two Olympics, could well win again when the Sochi Games open Feb. 7, solidifying himself as the most recognizable figure in the U.S. contingent in a sport that wasn’t contended in the Olympics until 1998.
Beyond White, though, is a litany of athletes either currently struggling or lacking in candle power. Bode Miller, the talented but enigmatic Alpine racer from New Hampshire, won a gold, a silver and a bronze in a stunning performance four years ago. But he is now 36 and in the midst of a comeback; he has one top-three finish in his nine World Cup races this year. Julia Mancuso, Vonn’s contemporary and occasional rival who has three Olympic medals, has a reputation for relishing the spotlight and performing on the biggest stages, but she hasn’t yet posted a top-10 finish on the World Cup circuit this season, an ominous preamble. Ted Ligety was a gold medalist in 2006, but he is a specialist — a favorite in the giant slalom who will sit out the marquee downhill.
Other sports also are undergoing transitions. Short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, a staple of the past three U.S. winter teams and in Olympic-related advertisements, is retired, so the skating community will look to long-track racer Shani Davis, who has won gold in the 1,000 meters in each of the past two Games. Women’s figure skating won’t provide a medal favorite as it has in so many past Olympics, and Evan Lysacek, the men’s gold medalist in Vancouver, announced in December that he would be unable to defend his title because of a labrum injury.
Even the men’s ice hockey team, which took silver after losing a thrilling, overtime gold-medal game to host Canada in Vancouver, will be revamped, with several first-time faces, including Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson.
Olympic-related programming is a major part of NBC’s 2014 plans. Four years ago, more than 190 million people tuned in for at least part of the coverage of the Vancouver Games, and Steve Burke, the network’s CEO, called the Olympics the “soul” of NBC at a news conference Tuesday in New York. The network had spent months incorporating Vonn into their commercials and promotional plans and now will have to adjust.
“There’s plenty of stars out there,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group. “Yes, we wish we still had Lindsey there, but we don’t. That’s the nature of sports. . . . Lots of stars unfortunately get injured and hurt.”
Lazarus pointed out that Americans brought home 37 medals from Vancouver and Vonn accounted for two, so there will surely be other athletes to focus on when the Games begin in Sochi.
“Stars exist, but stars are more often made and born during the course of an Olympic Games,” added Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “It’s really not an issue for us. Look, Lindsey gives you great promotional value, and she’s an amazing athlete and an amazing story. But there are amazing athletes that are going to be in Sochi, many of which we know, some of which we haven’t identified yet.”
Vonn, 29, broke the news on her Facebook page early Tuesday morning.
“I am devastated to announce that I will not be able to compete in Sochi,” she wrote. “I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL, but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level.”
Because a healthy Vonn would be a threat for three or four medals — and a realistic favorite for two golds — her injury can transform the outlook of the entire U.S. team. And other athletes, many of whom chimed in on social media, recognized that as soon as the news broke Tuesday morning.
“Bummed Lindsey Vonn,” veteran American skier Stacey Cook wrote on her Facebook page. “Our team is not the same without you. You leave big shoes to fill for the rest of the year, but I am trying hard to do it!”
A more likely candidate to take the spotlight is Colorado teenager Mikaela Shiffrin, who won her sixth World Cup race of her young career — all in the slalom — last weekend. Shiffrin, 18, is in a similar position to Vonn in 2006 (when Vonn went by her maiden name, Kildow): a young athlete full of potential, one already with enormous appeal to sponsors, but not yet a fully formed star. Shiffrin will compete in two of alpine skiing’s five disciplines at the Olympics, limiting her impact.
None of those athletes, though, command the attention Vonn would have in the month before the Games. Until she reinjured her right knee in a World Cup race Dec. 21, her story was setting up, potentially, to be even better than the one she wrote four years ago.
Since Vancouver, Vonn and her husband Thomas divorced. She began dating golf star Tiger Woods, further upping her Q-rating. She had reconciled with her father, Alan Kildow, from whom she was estranged during her Olympic appearances in 2006 and ’10. She had gone public with her bouts with depression.
And she had endured the devastating crash last Feb. 5 in Schladming, Austria, an accident that left her wailing on the hillside, the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in her right knee shredded, with a small bone fracture added for good measure.
Now, that story is shelved, and her target for return is the 2014-15 World Cup season, which includes the world championships in Vonn’s home town of Vail, Colo. But by then, the Olympic spotlight will be in its four-year hibernation, and the lasting memories of the Sochi Games will have been made by someone else.
“I think there will definitely be a gap that [NBC] can’t fill,” Towns said. “So much of what they cover is the personal interest. It’s what they promote, what you see in the commercials. They can introduce a new athlete, but they won’t have all the interest that Lindsey brings to the table.”
Rick Maese contributed to this report.