How do Canadian Olympians make a career off a gold medal?

Why is it that some Olympic athletes have such a successful career off the field of play, while others don't? CBC Sports talks to some of the best in the Canadian sport and the sport marketing landscape to see how athletes make the most out of gold.

The secret to turning a moment on the field of play into a successful, post-athletic career

Ice dancer Tessa Virtue is one of Canada's most successful athletes both on and off the ice. (Geoff Robins/The Canadian Press)

Jon Montgomery walking through Whistler, B.C., with a pitcher of beer in hand. Mark McMorris stepping onto the Olympic podium, just weeks after breaking a rib. Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir sticking a final pose, proving a picture-perfect long program does exist.

The common ground? These Canadian Olympic moments transformed into careers off the field of play. 

Montgomery now hosts a TV show. Virtue and McMorris cashed in with a plethora of sponsorship and business deals.

But what about the hundreds of other Canadian Olympians? In today's climate, where social media and sponsorship opportunities have skyrocketed, how does an athlete cash in on a medal, particularly gold?

It seems that making that happen starts well before the Games begin.

"Storytelling is the currency of the Games," says Russell Reimer, president of Manifesto Sport Management, a company that manages Olympic, professional, and action sports athletes amongst other branding and content ventures. "In the same way you would put in all the time, mostly in anonymity, to train for your sport, you also have to put that level of care and time into what it is you want to become and telling your story going into the Games."

Virtue with Canadian athlete agent Russell Reimer.

Secrets to developing post-athletic success

Reimer's company represents several of the most successful Canadian Olympians — names like Virtue, McMorris, Montgomery, hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser and sprinter Aaron Brown.

Before founding Manifesto, Reimer was a producer with NBC at the Sydney and Salt Lake City Olympics. There he noticed all athletes faced the same challenges of cyclical interest, partners that weren't committed and marketing rights that fell into increasingly narrow windows.

It's the same issues most athletes face today.

He also noticed the untapped business of bridging an athlete's story and marketing opportunities. And since all Olympians are there to win medals, it's what an athlete stands for that separates them from the crowd and makes them attractive to sponsors.

"I think from an Olympic perspective you get to tap into a more emotional connection than you maybe could with other sports," says Matt McGlynn, vice president of brand marketing at Royal Bank of Canada [RBC], a Canadian national team sponsor since 1947.

"Performance always goes up and down, but we always stay focused on athletes that have a strong and organic connection to our brand."

Building a sellable brand is a big ask from athletes, considering they're already working to be among the best in the world at their sport.

But so is every other athlete.

"Zero times an Olympic gold medal is zero," Reimer says. "You should have no expectation of a commercial outcome if you aren't willing to do the work and storytelling…before the Games." 

Of course, there are outliers. Think Penny Oleksiak or Andre De Grasse; two relatively unknown Canadians who turned Olympic performances into immediate success after the 2016 Rio Olympics. Both are Canadian red carpet staples with brand partnerships relevant to their sports — Vichy Canada for Oleksiak and Puma for De Grasse.

But coming into a Games with a defined mission statement, or being shrewd enough to capitalize on the attention is how a pitcher of beer multiplies a skeleton gold medal into a hosting gig on national TV.

"All you have to do is ask yourself a tough question about why [you're doing this], what your deepest motivation was," Reimer says. "And if you say something compelling in the moment you have Canada's attention, the United States' attention. You have created yourself a commercial and career opportunity."

McMorris set the tone, Virtue doing it best

Take McMorris for example.

"He's had a camera with him since he was eight years old," Reimer says of the Canadian snowboarder. "And we were able to tell really great stories about Mark and we took the time to construct a real critical path of content going into the 2014 Games."

McMorris was also a trailblazer in social media. He was named most socially engaged Olympian at Sochi 2014 by the Sport Business Journal and Hookit, a sport sponsorship analytics platform.

Snowboarder Mark McMorris paved the way to engaging fans through social media not only for Canadian athletes, but athletes all over the world. (HookIt)

It didn't hurt that McMorris has won enough X Games medals to be compared with American legend Shaun White. But when the comparison happened, McMorris' story and content were primed and ready for when people Googled his name.

But right now, Reimer says the Canadian athlete doing it best is Virtue, now a figure skating legend.

"When you see the transition she's made, it's really a massive leap — a leap that hasn't taken place in Canada from success on ice or snow to commercial success," he says.

Since competing in her final Olympic Games in 2018, Virtue's personal brand has aligned with endless high-profile companies: Nivea, Adidas, and MAC Cosmetics to name a few. She's appeared on shows like Mr. D and MasterChef Canada. Rock The Rink, a skating exhibition, starts its Canadian tour this fall with Virtue at the centre of the show.

All this happened post-Pyeongchang, her third and final Olympic cycle, and arguably, her most successful. 

"I was clear about my mission," Virtue said. "And my goal was not to be a well-known figure in Pyeongchang, my goal was to be the best ice dancer in the world."

That meant turning down sponsorship and media opportunities to focus on training. But Virtue found an effective way to stay visible and tell her story: Instagram. 

Virtue wasn't even on the app in Sochi 2014: her first post was the following summer. But through videos of practices and choreography sessions, alongside thoughtfully curated posts reflecting her personal and professional mission statements, Virtue built a following that grew by more than 200 per cent in Pyeongchang.

Virtue wants all her business relationships and ventures to reflect her bottom line, which is inspiring young girls and women while fostering a supportive network where people can strive to be the best versions of themselves.

"There's no easy way to the top of anything, but it's a lot of hard work and I feel maybe I have the confidence in that recipe, or the confidence in myself," Virtue says. "So maybe it's an investment in myself and getting back to authenticity, just trusting in my story and who I am to the core."

And that all comes down to what Reimer says is the bottom line.

"She's the model for how you build enduring appeal… What matters is the story."


Jacqueline Doorey is a digital host and producer for CBCSports.ca