A new book by Olympic medalist and biathlon world champion Gabriela Koukalová is currently making waves in the Czech athletic community and tabloid press. In her book, this major sports star talks frankly about her life, disclosing things we might not have wanted to know. She didn’t compete at all this season, even missing out on the Olympics, where she had a good chance at winning a medal. The official reason given was that she had ongoing problems with her calf muscles, but her book revealed that the real reason might be quite different. Gabriela spoke openly in her autobiography about her 10-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia. She also discussed strained relationships on the beloved and highly praised team that made Czechs fall in love with this previously little-known sport. Their successes in the last few years often had audiences glued to their television screens on long winter afternoons. They seemed like such a great group of friends… We’re sad to see an amazing athletic career come to a close, and we ask ourselves whether it was really worth going out that way. But I don’t want to dwell too much on what Gabriela wrote and what plenty of other people have written and will write about after me. I’m struck by something a bit different: Right now we have the opportunity to watch someone commit brand suicide before our very eyes.

A perfect star

Because in a few short years rising to the very top of her sport, Gabriela became a bright, shining brand. A beautiful young woman with long blonde hair, later red, makeup and accessories always perfectly put together even in the worst weather (unlike most of her competitors), standing out with her pink ski poles and bright pink shoes, leaving competitors far behind as she races to the finish line, all smiles. Such a likeable girl, popular, full of spunk and just a bit scatterbrained, great sense of humor, so artless and open that you can’t help but love her. An incredibly gifted athlete who has the fight and drive to keep on winning, who stands a real chance at making a mark in her sport at the global level.
Could it get any better than that? That’s a dream brand, right there. Marketing experts say her market value is more than ten million Czech crowns. She never lacked for sponsors, each more eager than the last to make her the new face of their products. Her popularity brought a wave of investment into the sport as a whole. Despite her health problems, even if she never competed again, she was in a position that could open doors to all sorts of business and social opportunities, guaranteeing her a comfortable life in the public eye for years to come.

When image and reality are too far apart

And yet she decided to give it all up. It all makes no sense. Does it all make no sense? Your brand is your image in other people’s eyes – how they see you. Which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with who you really are. Companies and public figures carefully build their brand, taking great care not to damage their reputation – their brand image. Gabriela Koukalova did the exact opposite. She kicked her own brand off the pedestal and it came crashing right down. And Gabriela says she feels better now. Maybe she didn’t want to be that smiling girl any more, collecting medals like candy, envied for her success. Surrounded by luxury, with such an amazing life that no one would believe she could ever suffer from anything. Maybe she didn’t want to be a “national treasure” or “inspiration,” as so many people saw her. She wanted to be herself, with all the pain, screw-ups and difficult relationships that entails.

What next?

I don’t know what will happen next. Maybe she’ll build a new brand image. She’ll become a different brand, maybe one that is closer to who she really is. Despite the current scandal, Gabriela is still hugely popular, so she could do a lot of good working for charity. In fact, she has already gotten involved in charity work recently. Her credibility has certainly suffered, and many sponsors will probably turn their backs on her, but her honesty and her powerful story will certainly attract others. Maybe Gabriela will reinvent herself as a kind of Czech Angelina Jolie, acting as an ambassador for some good cause. Or maybe she’ll focus her brand somewhat closer to home. She’ll shine as a wife, a mother, she’ll find a job and her brand might no longer be worth millions, but it will be authentically hers, and that is priceless.
For my part, I’m grateful to Gabriela for all those afternoons I spent in front of the television, breathless and on the edge of my seat as she hit target after target. For the joy she gave us each time she won. And whatever happens, I hope she has a happy life and never has cause to regret her choice.

And what about my brand?

Gabriela’s story might inspire us to reflect on our own brands. What is my image in other people’s eyes? Does it match how I see myself, or is there a disconnect? And what can I do to make it more authentic?

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