The Name Olympics
Reader Liz asks:
Laura, Have you ever looked at the Olympics to see if they have helped propel names into stardom? Will 2006 see lots of little Bodes, Sashas, or Renas?
Few stars rise and set as swiftly as Olympic champions. Their glories are perfectly crystallized in time, and sure enough you can find traces, like fossils, in the name records. But as with all celebrity-inspired names, it's more about the name than the celebrity.
Mark Spitz didn't do anything for the name Mark. Dorothy Hamill failed to revive the name Dorothy. It's the same story for Mary Lou Retton, Peggy Fleming, Bruce Jenner, Bonnie Blair....Those names were yesterday's news by the time their namesakes made history, and it would take more than medals to bring them back. For maximum celebrity impact, a name has to be fresh and interesting. That means that most of the Olympian-inspired names in America have actually been sparked by foreign athletes--in particular, foreign women.
Katarina, for instance, first hit the American popular name charts in 1988 when German figure skater Katarina Witt won her second consecutive gold medal. She was the first to take consecutive golds since Norwegian legend Sonja Henie won in 1928, 1932, and 1936 -- and yes, introduced her name to America. The single biggest Olympic name inspiration was probably Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who scored the first perfect 10 in 1976. The name Nadia immediately roared into popularity and has remained an American name ever since.
A few Americans have come close. The name Tai made its one and only appearance on the name charts in 1980, the year that highly touted pairs skaters Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner had to withdraw from competition. This year's top names are also likely to come from the skating ranks. Sasha is a possibility, though it's already been a top-500 U.S. name for decades. The most intriguing name spark may be ice dancer Tanith Belbin. (Tanith was the name of a Phoenician goddess; you might also consider the Greek version Tanis.)
Finally, a bit of perspective on Olympic glory. I mentioned that Sonja Henie's gold-medal performances inspired some American Sonjas. But take a look at what happened when she retired from skating in 1936:
Why the jump? Henie retired to Hollywood, where she starred in a series of popular skate-themed movies. A decade's worth of gold medals didn't hold a candle to films like Thin Ice and Happy Landing.