With the 2012 London Summer Olympics in full
swing, more than just the results of the games are on people's
minds. The athletes and their stories are subjects of endless
fascination - something corporate executives should keep in
mind if they want to get a message across to meeting attendees
in a way attendees will focus on and think about for a long
"Olympians are good choices for any events that require
motivational speakers," says Michael Frick, president of
Speakers Platform, a Palm Springs, CA-based speakers bureau.
"Olympic speakers come from a wide range of background, so,
depending on their experience, they can talk on everything from
diversity to business. And since most people can relate to
Olympians, they are good for diverse audiences of all ages,
professions, genders, and ethnicities."
On the other hand, speakers bureaus emphasize how important it
is for executives and planners to remember that being the best
gymnast, swimmer, runner, ice skater, or skier in the world
doesn't necessarily make someone a good speaker.
"I won't sign any athletes unless they have a story and can
communicate it," says Evan Morgenstein, president and CEO of
PMG Sports, an Olympic athlete management firm. "It doesn't
matter how good an athlete you are; if you can't communicate a
message, you can't provide value to an event. Successful
Olympians on the speaker circuit can execute speeches about
their lives and understand that it's tying all the loose ends
together for people that makes their unique yet universal
messages relevant to an audience."
As challenging as the path is that an athlete takes to get to
the Olympics, developing that ability as a speaker takes years.
"With rare exceptions, you're not going to have a 16-year-old
gymnast from the U.S. automatically become a superstar
speaker," says John Truran, senior vice president of Keppler
Speakers. "First of all, she's 16. What's she going to have to
say to people [who are] two or three times her age making
One of the best former Olympians currently doing speaking
engagements earned nine medals - seven of them back in 1972.
When the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York hired
swimmer Mark Spitz to speak at its Major Gifts Division's
Headliner Series in May, the organization's goals were simple,
says Daniel Flax, the group's director of financial resource
development. "We select speakers we feel can motivate people,
and will inspire people to increase their pledges."
Spitz was a pretty safe bet, says Flax, as they had used him as
a headliner six years earlier. He is one of only two speakers
they've brought back for the event, which is held two or three
times a year.
"We were successful in that a number of households did increase
their pledges because they wanted to hear him and what he had
to say," Flax says. "They wanted to be part of the group.
That's always part and parcel of why we choose anybody. Mark
obviously has a household name; a number of the younger
attendees really wanted to be in his company."
Spitz won seven gold medals for individual and team swimming
events in the 1972 Munich Olympic games - more than anyone,
ever, in any sport, which was a record he held for 36 years
until Michael Phelps won eight in the 2008 Beijing games.
Of course, the fact that Spitz can speak about being a Jewish
athlete didn't hurt his selection by the Jewish Federation of
Northeastern New York. That said, however, the former athlete's
speech about pathways to success was in line with the message
that the organization wanted to communicate to its potential
donors says Flax.
"My presentation is not specifically related to swimming or
being an athlete, but it had to do with human nature, how we
react to things that happen to us, positively or negatively,
and how we can turn the tide to make a positive even from a
negative event," Spitz says. "If you ever heard anybody say,
'Well, I should have done this and I should have done that,'
they were probably 100 percent capable of doing what they just
But most people are afraid to take a chance, Spitz says. They
are afraid to expose themselves to the possibility of failure.
Without doing that, he adds, you can't have success. "In
essence, that's my message: It's okay to accept the loss and
learn from it, and not worry about it. It's what [you] do the
next day," he says.
With the games happening this year, any Olympian "is a nice
tie-in," says Gail Davis, president of Dallas-based GDA
Speakers. "But beyond that, each athlete is probably hired for
a different reason. It's always interesting to me how a speaker
can talk about a topic they're an expert on, and then the
people in the audience can take that and apply it to specific
That is, in part, because success in athletics requires many of
the same skills and the same drive as success in business.
After all, there's a reason that so many business concepts draw
on the language of sports - words such as teamwork,
competition, goals, and, of course, winner.
To Be the Best
Olympic athletes "have competed in front of billions of people
under the most intense pressure," says Morgenstein, whose firm
represents Spitz. "That puts them at ease during times of
stress. When you're dealing with corporate leaders, corporate
executives, and sales groups, you have to overcome obstacles to
accomplish goals in sales and marketing. An Olympic athlete at
the highest level can convey those messages."
That's why the Managed Care Risk Association (MCRA) hired
gymnast Mitch Gaylord - a 1984 gold medal winner with the first
perfect score of any male American gymnast - to keynote its
annual conference in Washington, D.C., next month. The group is
made up of insurers, underwriters, brokers, and
cost-containment providers in the reinsurance business.
"We want someone who will get the attendees' attention, get
them excited, and energize them," says Chuck Newton, an MCRA
board member and senior vice president at Stuart, FL-based
Evergreen Re, a reinsurance firm. "Until four or five years
ago, we always had someone from our industry give the keynote,
but we moved away from that to get a more general-interest type
of speaker. Since this is an Olympic year, we thought it would
be good to have an Olympian."
The board looked at a number of Olympians before settling on
Gaylord. In part, this is because his accomplishments fit the
attendees' profile, and, in part, because one of his
presentations, called "Raising the Bar," matched the board's
goals for the conference. This speech focuses on inspiring individuals and
corporations to focus and commit to the pursuit of excellence
with a greater desire, determination, and dedication.
"In the Olympics, Gaylord performed at a very high level to
become the best at what he does," Newton explains. "We are a
competitive group. We compete with each other aggressively, and
his persona matched the spirit of our event. This is one event
when we get together as an industry and talk about the issues
we have in common."
Choosing the Best
While Olympians can offer valuable insight into universal
themes like setting goals and achieving them, competing in the
Olympics is a uniquely high-profile act of preparation and
execution. "They've represented all of us in a diligent way,"
says Morgenstein, "and that's something that means a lot to
everyone who watches an Olympian speak."
As an example, Gail Davis points to gymnast Peter Vidmar, who
at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles won a gold medal with
a perfect 10 on the pommel horse (the event came after
Gaylord's, so Vidmar wasn't the first to get a perfect score).
His second gold medal was earned as captain of the men's
gymnastic team that upset defending champion China that same
One of Davis' clients hired Vidmar because he "liked his talk
about how, in competition at that level, the difference between
a gold, a silver, and a bronze is sometimes 0.0025," she says.
"It's just miniscule, but it's the difference in standing on
the podium or not. Vidmar's presentation, 'Sales Margins of
Victory: There's No Silver in Sales,' takes it one step
further. When you're competing for a piece of business, the
only one who gets it is the gold medal winner. Then, he has a
great presentation on teamwork, and getting your team to the
Vidmar, whose speeches include a live demonstration on the
pommel horse, also has achievements beyond his personal
athletics that let him address management issues with
authority. He currently is chairman of the board of USA
Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, and has served
on the President's Council on Physical Fitness & Sports,
the executive board of the United States Olympic Committee, and
as a gymnastics commentator for CBS Sports and ESPN.
Accomplishment is another strong point for executives and
planners considering an Olympian, says Morgenstein, whose firm
represents a number of top-level Olympians such as swimmer
Janet Evans, decathlete Bruce Jenner, track-and-field star
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, swimmer Dara Torres, and diver Greg
Louganis, among others.
Indeed, there are enough top Olympians who are good speakers to
meet the needs of any company, Morgenstein adds.
"If you are the best in your category, if you're an industry
leader, how do you maintain that?" he asks. "I've got clients
that are the best in the world and [hire Olympians who] can
speak to that. If, on the other hand, you're second, third,
fifth, 10th in position behind other companies, and you're not
clear about how you're going to achieve an increase in market
share or revenue, or whatever the goal or objective is, you
want the athlete who came out of nowhere, who surprised
everyone, to talk about how you do just that." SM
Here are a dozen Olympic athletes recommended by speakers
bureaus as having inspiring stories, good speaking skills, and
the ability to help companies and organizations achieve their
The goalie of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team that defeated
Russia's essentially professional team in the "Miracle on Ice,"
a victory ESPN called one of the great sports moments of the
20th century, Jim Craig is president of Gold Medal Strategies,
a Boston-based motivational speaking and sales training company
and the author of Gold Medal Strategies: Business Lessons from
America's Miracle Team.
Goals he can help achieve: Beating long odds; teaching
teamwork; reaching goals through commitment, preparation,
purpose, and effort.
Fee Range: $20,000 - $30,000
A three-time Olympian and member of the "Magnificent Seven"
U.S. women's Olympic gymnastics team in 1996, Dominique Dawes
has taken the lessons she learned under legendary coach Bela
Karolyi and passed them on to the young women she coaches. Her
focus on achieving great things emphasizes the importance of
character, perseverance, and reaching goals. Appointed co-chair
of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition by
President Barack Obama, she also works on healthy lifestyle
Goals she can help achieve: motivation; leadership; wellness;
Fee: $10,000 - $15,000
Despite her small stature and unorthodox stroke, three-time
Olympian Janet Evans won the the 400- , 800- , and 1,500-meter
freestyle competitions in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating her
own world-record 400-meter time by a staggering 1.6 seconds in
a sport usually decided by tenths or even hundredths of a
second. A practiced and in-demand presenter, her motivational
speaking career started at age 16, and speech topics include
"Leadership Through Goal Attainment" and "What to Do When You
Are Number One."
Goals she can help achieve: motivation; inspiration;
leadership; team building; wellness and fitness; getting on top
and staying there.
Fee: $15,000 - $20,000
Mitch Gaylord led the U. S. Olympic gymnastics team to its gold
medal victory in 1984, becoming the first American gymnast to
score a perfect 10. He was subsequently appointed to the
President's Council for Physical Fitness by two presidents. He
was a broadcaster for Fox Sports during the 1996 Atlanta Summer
Olympics and today runs a fitness company.
Goals he can help achieve: self-motivation; inspiration;
competition; dedication and achievement; teamwork.
Fee: $5,000 - $10,000
One of the country's most famous Olympic athletes, Bruce Jenner
broke the world record by scoring 8,634 points in the decathlon
at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, winning fame and a Wheaties
cereal box cover for seven years. An actor and commentator for
NBC, ABC, and Fox sports in later years, Jenner is now a
reality TV star with his wife, Kris - who also manages the
reality careers of her daughters, the Kardashians. His speaking
topic, "Finding the Champion Within," is based on his book of
the same name.
Goals he can help achieve: motivation, inspiration; achieving
goals; reaching your peak performance.
Fee: $25,000 - $30,000
For an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer, Cullen Jones'
introduction to his sport was far from auspicious. At age five,
his parents took him to a water park where he nearly drowned.
Twenty years later he won the gold (at the 2008 Beijing
Olympics), only the second African-American to win a swimming
gold medal. In addition to this work, Jones has also become a
spokesman for USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash Program - the largest swim instruction/drowning prevention program
for minorities in the world.
Goals he can help achieve: self-motivation; inspiration;
overcoming your fears to achieve success; corporate social
Fees: $10,000 - $20,000
A three-time Olympian with four gold medals in diving, Greg
Louganis has faced and overcome huge obstacles both in and out
of the pool. Asthmatic and dyslexic as a child, Louganis
nonetheless became one of the country's greatest divers,
winning gold medals in both the springboard and platform events
in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics - something no American had
done since 1928. He repeated the feat in Seoul, in 1988,
despite suffering a concussion in a qualifying round when his
head hit the board. What fans did not know at the time was that
he was also HIV-positive, something he acknowledged in 1995.
Goals he can help achieve: motivation; achieving peak
performance; inspiration; overcoming adversity; diversity.
Fee: $15,000 - $20,000
America's most highly decorated Olympian at the 1976 Games in
Montreal, Naber earned four gold medals in swimming. In 1984,
he carried the Olympic flag into the opening ceremonies of the
Los Angeles Games. A top speaker for more than a quarter of a
century, Naber's speeches are full of stories of ordinary
people accomplishing extraordinary goals. His topics include
character-driven accomplishment, in which he looks at way to
achieve success without sacrificing ethics; motivating your
team and yourself; keeping promises you made to yourself; and
reaching gold-medal performance.
Goals he can help achieve: self-motivation and motivating
others; achieving goals; inspiration; success without
Fees: $10,000 - $20,000
A Canadian speed skier in the 1992 Winter Olympics, Vince
Poscente is a member of the National Speakers Association as
well as the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers Hall
of Fame. But his athletic prowess is only part of the insight
Poscente has to offer corporate groups. With a masters degree
in organizational management, Poscente is also author of the
New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Age of
Speed: Learning to Thrive in Our More-Faster-Now World.
His speeches focus on proven strategies for attaining and
sustaining peak performance at the individual as well as the
corporate levels, combining leadership insights from his
business career along with lessons learned from his Olympic
Goals he can help achieve: motivation; inspiration; sales;
speed of execution; leadership strategies; aligning the
organization with leadership goals; outperforming the
competition; setting and achieving goals.
Fee: $25,000 - $30,000
Most Olympians on the speakers' circuit have won the gold, or
at least medaled. Dudley "Tal" Stokes is not one of them.
But he did serve as captain of the Jamaican bobsled team for
Olympics from 1988 to 2000. This included the Lillehammer,
Norway games in 1994, where the team placed a surprising 14th,
ahead of the USA, Russia, Australia, and France, among others -
a story of tenacity and perseverance that served as the basis
for the hit 1994 film Cool Runnings.
Now coach of the Jamaican team, as well as managing director of
Jamaican tour provider Helitours Limited and a pilot in the
Jamaican Defense Forces, Stokes speaks on teamwork, management,
and motivation. Another topic he addresses is ethics, based on
his own struggle over whether to extend his own Olympic career
with performance enhancing drugs (he didn't).
Goals he can help achieve: management and coaching; team
building; motivating and inspiring underdogs; overcoming
Fee Range: $5,000 - $10,000
One of the most popular Olympian speakers, swimmer Dara Torres
competed in five consecutive Olympic games. This year, at 45,
she tried out for the U.S. team in the 50-meter freestyle
event, narrowly missing a spot on what would have been her
sixth Olympics. A 12-time medalist, she has appeared as a
commentator on Fox News, ESPN, and the Discovery Channel.
Torres was named one of the Top Female Athletes of the decade
by Sports Illustrated and was the first actual athlete to
appear in its swimsuit issue. She is a national spokesperson
for McDonald's, as well as the best-selling author of Age is
Just a Number: Achieve Your Dreams at Any Stage in Your Life
and Gold Medal Fitness: A Revolutionary 5-Week Program.
Goals she can help achieve: reaching goals; overcoming long
odds; overcoming skeptics to achieve success; wellness and
fitness; maintaining a positive attitude in any circumstance;
achieving goals at any stage of your career; women's
Fee: $40,000 - $50,000
Currently chairman of the board of USA Gymnastics, the sport's
national governing body, Peter Vidmar won a gold medal with a
perfect 10 on the pommel horse in the 1984 Olympic Games,
making him the highest- scoring gymnast in American history. He
won another as captain of the men's gymnastic team that upset
the defending champion, China, that year, as well as silver in
the individual all-around competition.
As a speaker at hundreds of corporate and association events
for more than 20 years, Vidmar focuses on the three components
of a perfect score - risk, originality, and virtuosity -
demonstrating them on a pommel horse and discussing how they
apply to business and life. He has served on the President's
Council on Physical Fitness & Sports, the Executive Board
of the United States Olympic Committee, and as a gymnastics
commentator for CBS Sports and ESPN.
Goals he can help you achieve: management and team building;
achieving goals through hard work; leading high achievers;
taking and managing risk.
Fee Range: $10,000 - $15,000