Nick Symmonds looks on prior to a preliminary round of the men's 800… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)
EUGENE, Ore. — — To hear publicist Hal Lifson speak is to be transported to an era when the Rat Pack ruled Hollywood, TV moms wore crisp shirtwaist dresses and pearls around the house and kids attached colorful streamers to the handlebars of their Schwinn Hornets.
Lifson, who grew up in Encino and lives in Beverly Hills, combined his promotional skills and fascination with the 1960s to revive the careers of celebrities such as Nancy Sinatra, Stefanie Powers and Raquel Welch. His other passion, for running, inspired him to devise strategies to help track athletes attract mainstream media attention. When he switched gears he kept his star-making approach, which comes straight from 1960s movie-fan magazines.
In the items he plants in gossip columns and the website patch.com, client Maggie Vessey isn't just an 800-meter runner, she's "like a tall glass of very smart water for the U.S. middle distance team. A blonde bombshell who runs fast as lightning."
Distance runner and former client Kara Goucher isn't merely pretty, she's "the Julia Roberts of track." Four-time U.S. 800-meter champion Nick Symmonds isn't merely good looking, he's the Brad Pitt of the sport and onetime date of socialite Paris Hilton.
Symmonds, who finished second in his 800-meter semifinal heat Saturday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in 1 minute 46.82 seconds, had lunch with Hilton recently in Beverly Hills and maintains an email relationship with her. Symmonds invited Hilton to watch him run for an Olympic berth in Monday's final at Hayward Field and Lifson is hopeful she will also be in London to cheer Symmonds at the Summer Games.
Lifson's methods are unconventional for sports and his pop-culture focus has raised the hackles of some track purists.
"They think the sport should stay the same. They want a dignified sport with men in straw hats and stop watches," he said.
But it's not like track and field has a positive image after enduring doping scandals and other woes. So why not try something different to tell stories Lifson believes are worth telling?
"I'm a firm believer that the sport is under-promoted and under-marketed," said Lifson, 51. "It's not like it's boring and doesn't have the right elements. It does have them.
"I approach athletes and give them a game plan as to how I see their image outside running. The focus is always how I'm going to promote them outside the sport. If they're well-known in the sport they're already being written about in running magazines. I want to go beyond that."
Symmonds, a native of Boise, Idaho, plays along. After finishing third in the Prefontaine Classic meet three weeks ago, he decided to leave Eugene to clear his head. Instead of seeking solitude, he went to Beverly Hills and met Hilton for lunch.
"It was absolutely a distraction but it was three weeks out from the trials," he said of his trip.
It certainly didn't hurt him. And his agent, Chris Layne, is fine with Lifson's promotional ploys.
"Anytime Nick, and the sport of track and field in general, receive this type of mainstream exposure, it's a good thing," Layne said. "Our sport has suffered from a perception problem, so if our public can get to know athletes like Nick, who brings so much to the table, we have a chance to gain momentum."
Lifson said he tries to provide his clients a story non-track fans can relate to and follow.
"Some coaches discourage athletes from seeking publicity but that's what's hurting the sport," Lifson said. "If people don't see them as vibrant entertainers then they won't get endorsements. Madison Avenue won't knock on their doors.
"My job is to do one thing: to increase the visibility for track and field athletes and my clients."