SBJ/November 12 - 18, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Skier pledges allegiance to Hilfiger, not USOC outfitter

Eric Bergoust used to be a radical athlete in the cult sport of freestyle aerial skiing. Today, he is the reigning gold medalist in the Olympic sport of freestyle skiing, and he just happens to be its defending world champion as well. Like his sport, Bergoust is no longer on the periphery.

Last week, he issued an edict: Effective through the 2002 Winter Games, he plans to wear the attire provided by his clothing sponsor, Tommy Hilfiger, whenever he can. Bergoust says he was ordered by the U.S. Olympic Committee during its recent media summit in Salt Lake City to keep Hilfiger logos out of sight. The USOC's official Winter Games outfitter is Canadian apparel company Roots.

Hilfiger strikes an especially raw nerve, because the two parties are embroiled in a legal battle. The Olympic Committee is taking Hilfiger U.S.A. to court, likely next spring, to seek payment of $17 million. The USOC charges Hilfiger abandoned a deal to design and supply parade apparel for athletes in the 2000 Summer Games, 2002 Winter Games, 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Summer Games.

Bergoust's agent, Evan Morgenstein, said his client was invited to the media summit — a weekend of nonstop national exposure — and, as a USOC guest, had little choice but to comply.

But Bergoust, 32, said he regrets the decision and believes he should have backed out of the summit. Even so, he wore the designer's jeans and shirt concealed by a vest provided by another sponsor. And though the USOC urged him not to, Bergoust did an interview with the TV magazine "Extra" wearing Hilfiger.

"I feel I should have just said I was not coming [to the summit]," Bergoust said. "It wasn't worth it for me to make [the sponsor] mad, so I'm not going to do it anymore. All I care about is supporting sponsors who have supported me, and winning. Tommy Hilfiger has been too good to me for too many years."

Morgenstein says his client will appear in a coming Men's Health magazine photo spread in Hilfiger attire.

Assuming he becomes a U.S. Olympic team member next year, Bergoust will be required to sign a USOC code-of-conduct agreement, which includes specific policies on wearing official team apparel that are strictly enforced.

Ranked No. 1 in the world going into the Salt Lake City Games in three months, he is one of the most in-demand American winter athletes. He recently became a spokesman for Samsung's essay contest, Spirit of Sport, which will identify five winning tributes to influential mentors. Bergoust said he will make pre-Games appearances for Coca-Cola and Eastman Kodak. He also is under contract to Bieffe helmets, Gateway, skiwear manufacturer Marker and Volkl, a ski maker.

Dueling apparel sponsorship is not a new issue for the U.S. Olympic movement. It dates to the 1992 Summer Olympics, when the basketball Dream Team avoided wearing Reebok attire because some of its high-profile members, including Michael Jordan, were Nike endorsers.

At the same Salt Lake summit Bergoust attended, members of the U.S. short-track speed skating team appeared at a news conference in street clothes, not team warm-ups, in deference to the wishes of Nike, their apparel sponsor. Nike also has an apparel deal with the U.S. women's ice hockey team, which is creating tension between the sport's national governing body and USOC officials.

ICE DARLING: U.S. figure skater Sarah Hughes, 16, who recently won Skate Canada, upstaging world champion and fellow U.S. competitor Michelle Kwan, will become a spokeswoman for Capezio, a manufacturer of dance and skating apparel. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Hughes' father, John, a lawyer, handles her endorsement and promotional inquiries. The family has not hired an agent and is said to be declining commercial opportunities to shelter Hughes from distraction as she emerges as an Olympic medal contender.

Among evolving athletes, "sometimes agents can do more harm than good if they don't handle it just right," said Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network, a broker of corporate appearances. "Having an agent doesn't always fit the Olympic athlete profile."

RING TOSSES: Mark Lewis, chief fund-raiser for the Salt Lake City Winter Games organizing committee, hosts more than 700 visitors Tuesday and Wednesday when the SLOC conducts its final corporate sponsor workshops before the Games. Attendees range from global sponsors to suppliers and licensees. Lewis said one of the sessions will provide "a very extensive briefing on security." ... An International Olympic Committee panel overseeing Salt Lake's 2002 preparations has made its final inspection visit. Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler applauded "the way organizers responded to the new realities imposed upon them by 11 September." Salt Lake Games chief Mitt Romney sent a letter to national Olympic committees worldwide to reinforce statements that the Games will be prepared to counter terrorism threats. He pledged up to 7,000 security agents from federal, state and local agencies supported by several thousand more U.S. military personnel.

Steve Woodward can be reached at

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