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The Marketing of Grete Waitz : Born to Run and Set World Records She Is Talented Honest and Beloved in Her Own Country. But, Will She Sell?

January 13, 1986|JULIE CART | Times Staff Writer

'In Oslo, everybody knows me. One time I had some errands to do in town and I had to go to the toilet. I went into a public toilet and two people came in and said, 'Is it really you?' I said, 'Yes.' They said, 'And you are going to a public restroom?' I said, Why not? I have to go. They thought I was too good to go to the bathroom, that I couldn't do that. My God, I thought, relax people. I'm just like everybody else. I have to go to the toilet, too.'--GRETE WAITZ

'As a person, I'm still the same way. I like it when I can close the door. At home, my door is never open. In Oslo, I really care for my privacy. In Norway you have all these magazines to show how famous people live. I said to them, 'No, not for me.' I asked them, 'Would you want people in your apartment?' and they said 'No.' 'We are the same,' I said. Why should I do it? That is what I try to explain to people, that even though a lot of people know my name and I have been on TV, I am just a normal person.'

--GRETE WAITZ

A mishmash of agents, marketing planners and public relations people are sitting around the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Everyone is talking at once. They call that brainstorming.

These trendily dressed people are plotting a marketing strategy for the next biggest sports splash in the history of hustling. It's not Mary Lou. It's not the Refrigerator. It's . . . it's . . . Grete Waitz.

What's the matter, can't quite place the name? She's a sports figure whose name is regularly mangled, "Oh yeah, that marvelous runner, Gretel Weight," in a sport (marathon running) that is routinely ignored and comes from a country (Norway) that is usually confused with one of those other cold places, you know, Sweden, Denmark, Finland.

How do you market a woman who values her privacy more than her world records and medals? How would you sell a product that has no image, little name recognition and little sex appeal?

These are the head-scratching questions being posed by the people who are bringing us the dynamic new Grete Waitz, 32, the woman who has largely dominated women's distance running for the past decade. This must rank as one of the year's marketing challenges.

The marketing of athletes is nothing new; the Wheaties cereal box serves as a pictorial history of the genre. The 1984 Olympics brought us Mary Lou Retton, the biggest marketing oversell since the mood ring. Mary Lou was a particularly easy sell because she got a head start on her agents and began selling herself even before she became a product.

William Perry is a different plate of potatoes. The Refrigerator is the walking, blocking definition of media hype. The Fridge didn't have to do much beyond growing to jumbo proportions to become a star. He has been smiling his gap-toothed smile and remained his down-home self all along. At first, he was too slow to keep up with his bandwagon, but sports writers have kindly slowed it for him. On the way, he hasbecome a role model for the full-figured among us.

So, what do you do with Grete Waitz: neither self-promoter nor media-promoted. She has set the world marathon record four times and won the New York City Marathon seven times. She's been the world cross-country champion five times and in 1983 won the first World Marathon Championship. She was the marathon silver medalist at the 1984 Olympics.

She is a virtual merit-badge sash of fine characteristics; Waitz is honest, hard working, drips with integrity, and is totally lacking in pretense.

She also is difficult to market. A campaign to sell Waitz to the American public may, if handled in a glitzy, splashy manner, die a painful and costly death. Waitz is the type of athlete, such as baseball's George Brett, who can't be shoved into just any type of promotional situation. Don't look for Waitz on Merv.

With the release last month of her "Running Great with Grete Waitz" training tips video, the full-scale media campaign is on. She's done the television shows, standing in the studio in her running suit patiently demonstrating the proper knee lift to Gary Collins. Waitz even did a few minutes on Dr. Ruth Westheimer's radio call-in show. Tactical error. A blushing Waitz bailed out when the cheeky Dr. Ruth up and asked, "Grete, what is your advice to women who want to know if they should have sex the night before running a marathon?"

Q: Grete, are you the most popular person in Norway?

A: "Well, I don't know how to put it, but everybody knows who I am. Even the small children and drunk people recognize me."

Grete Waitz is the most recognizable Norwegian export. Bigger than Thor Heyerdahl. Bigger than sardines. She is wildly popular in Europe, where she first became known as the world record-holder in the 3,000 meters. Lest they forget Waitz in her hometown of Oslo, there's a 20-foot bronze statue of her in front of Bislett Stadium, capturing her in mid-stride, pigtails trailing behind.

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