This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.
After the 1996 Olympics were over, after her big press tour had ended, Amy Van Dyken went grocery shopping. In the cereal aisle, the six-time gold medalist swimmer saw herself smiling back at her from the rows of Wheaties boxes on the shelves.
“I remember just standing there, looking at it, and being like, ‘That’s my face,’” Van Dyken told FiveThirtyEight. “Several people asked me, ‘Can I help you get anything?’ and I was like, ‘Nope, just staring at my mug on this box right here.’ It was just amazing.”
Olympic medalist is a title few people can claim. In the history of the games, fewer than 30,000 athletes have ever brought home a medal. But there is an honor even more rare, a club even more exclusive: those who have graced the cover of the Wheaties box. Since it first featured an athlete on its box in 1934 — New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig — Wheaties has placed the image of more than 850 athletes on the iconic orange box, 77 of whom were Olympic medalists. Over the better part of a century, what began as a marketing gimmick has evolved into a badge of honor that’s legitimately respected by athletes. Being on the cover of the “breakfast of champions” is viewed as a trophy in its own right, even though it’s bestowed by a bunch of cereal marketing executives rather than earned through competition.
“I look at going on the Wheaties box as becoming a member of a really cool club or fraternity,” said Dan O’Brien, the gold-medal-winning decathlete who appeared on a Wheaties box in 1996. “It’s an identifier of athletic excellence. It’s people who have raised the level of competition in their selected sport.”
Three other Wheaties box faces — gold-medal gymnasts Dominique Dawes and Carly Patterson and soccer star Brandi Chastain — had similar experiences. All five champions spoke about being on the box with a kind of playful reverence. True, it’s just a cereal box, but it was also a meaningful recognition of their achievements.
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The Wheaties box endures as a symbol of athletic achievement for the same reason it continues to be a successful marketing strategy for the brand: Wheaties has been doing this for a very long time, and it has been incredibly discerning in who graces its cardboard. Food marketer and author Phil Lempert said it’s clear that General Mills has been thoughtful about preserving this legacy by carefully selecting athletes and not releasing new boxes too frequently. If 100 athletes were on the box every year, it wouldn’t be nearly as prestigious.
“Brand managers switch every 18 months to 24 months, but somebody there has said, ‘You don’t screw around with this,’” Lempert said.
Wheaties was created by accident 100 years ago: A clinician spilled some bran gruel (think Oliver Twist) on a hot stove, where it baked into crispy flakes. He reached out to Washburn Crosby, a mill that later became General Mills, to say, presumably, “Hey, this is kind of tasty,” and the rest is history. The brand has been tied to sports for almost as long. In 1933, Wheaties became an official sponsor of baseball radio broadcasts and coined its slogan: “the breakfast of champions.” Given the brand’s relationship with baseball, featuring Gehrig in ’34 was a no-brainer, and it started a tradition that has snowballed into one of the most iconic non-competition prizes in sports. The battle for the Wheaties box was also a remarkably equal endeavor, at least when it came to gender: a woman — aviator Elinor Smith — featured the same year as Gehrig. Wheaties didn’t include a Black athlete on the box until 1952, when Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella was featured.
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For the first few decades, Wheaties athletes were depicted on the back of the box, but in 1958 the brand made a fateful choice. The box featured Olympic gold medalist pole vaulter Bob Richards on the front, and a new tradition was born.
Olympians have been among the athletes honored since the very beginning, with gold medalist track star Babe Didrikson Zaharias appearing on the box in 1935 (though she was pictured holding a basketball). But it’s a rarer achievement — the majority of Wheaties box-bedeckers have been professional athletes from major-league sports, though a handful have been Olympians who also starred in professional leagues (such as Michael Jordan). Most of the Olympic medalists featured have been American, but a handful of Canadians (including Elvis Stojko and Mario Lemieux) appeared on the box, as well as Jaromír Jágr of the Czech Republic. Among Olympic sports, Wheaties seems to prefer some more than others: 14 Olympic medalists featured on the box have been track and field competitors, 13 were basketball players, and 10 competed in gymnastics. Just one athlete from each of beach volleyball, biathlon, boxing and wrestling has appeared on the box.
|No. of athletes
|No. of medals
|Most decorated athlete
|Track and field
|LeBron James, David Robinson
|Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn
|M. Hamm, B. Scurry, B. Chastain
|Apolo Anton Ohno
Almost all the Olympians featured on the box won at least one medal in the Games, and those who didn’t were featured for other athletic achievements (such as an NBA title). Some won more than others, of course, like Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in the history of the Games with his 28 medals.
But a healthy portion of U.S. athletes take home a medal each Olympic games — this year, 156 American athletes have won at least one medal through Thursday’s events — and some of the U.S.’s top medal-earners never landed on the front of the box,so what else does it take?
“It goes beyond just being a standout athlete,” said Kelsey Roemhildt, a spokesperson for General Mills, in an email. “We focus on athletes that are making a difference and are using their sports platform for something greater because Wheaties believes the world needs more champions.”
The process for selecting the next featured athlete is a constant one, according to Ben Johnson, who worked as an associate marketing manager for Wheaties in 2009. Johnson said the selection committee keeps a list of athletes they’re keeping an eye on across various sports. While Wheaties is not an official sponsor of the 2020 Olympics, gold medalists tend to make prime targets, which makes the decision process even more complex, according to Johnson.
“The key word is champion, so we’re typically only going to feature people or teams on the box that have won the highest level of accolades,” Johnson said. “When we consider the Olympics, that’s where it really gets interesting because you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. That’s one of the pure and wonderful things about the competition.”
But when an athlete Wheaties has its eye on does medal at the games, the team moves quickly.
“After I won the all-around, I found out in Athens the next day,” said Patterson, who took the women’s gymnastics all-around title in 2004. She said learning she was going to be on the box was the first moment she realized the spotlight that was about to be on her. “I was so young and naive, I had no clue what winning the Olympic all-around meant. I thought I was going to go back home and just be normal Carly again.”
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Patterson said what was so exciting for her about being on the front of the Wheaties box was the legacy behind it, and the fact that it put her alongside some of the greatest American athletes of all time. All of the athletes I spoke to shared a similar sentiment, often naming off athletes they admired who had also been on the box, such as Mary Lou Retton and Caitlyn Jenner.
“There has been the likes of Serena [Williams] on the cover, Muhammad Ali, Mary Lou Retton, you name it,” said Dominique Dawes, who appeared on the Wheaties box with the rest of the “Magnificent Seven” after they won the team gymnastics gold in 1996. “Just to be mentioned alongside those other champions is truly an honor.”
For Brandi Chastain, the gold-medal-winning Olympic soccer player who was featured on the box after winning the Women’s World Cup in 1999, the cultural significance of the brand created personal meaning for her.
“It was kind of an all-American brand. In the ’70s and ’80s, Wheaties was my cereal. It was my jam,” Chastain said. “It was very iconic in the states in that they transformed from a breakfast food into a place where they could celebrate heroes.”
The athletes who have appeared on the box aren’t the only ones who feel this way. You can find eBay listings for signed Wheaties boxes that go for thousands of dollars. It’s become an iconic piece of American sports memorabilia: Patterson said she keeps her Wheaties box in plexiglass on top of her trophy case, and Van Dyken said hers is among other trophies in what she and her husband, former NFL punter Tom Rouen, jokingly call their “‘I love me’ room.”
This unusual but enduring piece of Americana remains a unique resume point for a handful of athletes, even rarer than an Olympic medal. It’s an honor that leaves world champions standing in the grocery aisle gawking at a cereal box, telling shop workers that, no, they don’t need any help. They’re just looking at their trophy.