Dale Begg-Smith: Olympic Gold medalist &Self-Made Millionaire by 19
CALGARY—Olympic gold medalist Dale Begg-Smith is the top-ranked moguls skier in the world. Yet after he finished first this month at a World Cup race here, reporters swarming around him didn’t ask about his kicker, his twister or his daffy, as moguls tricks are known. They asked about his high-tech business.
“Guys, sorry,” Steve Devosich, Mr. Begg-Smith’s coach, told them. “But Dale’s not supposed to answer questions about business.”
There’s no shortage of subjects that famous athletes don’t want to talk about—marital infidelity, marijuana pipes, dog fighting, performance-enhancing drugs.
But Mr. Begg-Smith’s sore subject would be the envy of most 25-year-olds: He’s an Internet prodigy. As a teenager in Vancouver, Mr. Begg-Smith launched high-tech businesses that earned enough money to spare him the usual hardships of striving Olympians. Mr. Begg-Smith is so rich he has never even needed corporate sponsors.
Yet to his chagrin, his business endeavors often draw more attention than his athletic triumphs.
At the press conference following his gold-medal win at the 2006 Games, for instance, reporters asked his fellow medalists how their cars compared with Mr. Begg-Smith’s Lamborghini. After the other two medalists responded “Audi” and “Subaru,” Mr. Begg-Smith said, “I don’t know why we’re talking about [that]. I’m not here for business. I won Olympic gold.”
Now, days ahead of the Vancouver Games, his supporters worry that such treatment will intensify, because Vancouver is where Mr. Begg-Smith grew up, learned to ski and first dazzled coaches. A decade ago, at the age of 15, he quit Canada’s ski team and moved to Australia, for business reasons.
Some Canadians think he’s a traitor. “If it were up to me, we’d stop that guy at the border,” says David Tait, a Calgary software engineer. To fellow athletes, though, Mr. Begg-Smith is a hero. “What Dale stands for is not letting your athletic career get in the way of your ‘after-career,’ and I completely agree with that,” says Alexandré♠ Bilodeau, 22, Canada’s top male moguls skier.
Asked about his long-ago decision, Mr. Begg-Smith said at this month’s Calgary race, “I did what I had to do.”
As a 10-year-old, Mr. Begg-Smith displayed natural talent on the slopes where the Vancouver Games will take place. “From the look in his eyes when you were talking to him, you knew that he really got it,” says Dominick Gauthier, a Canadian moguls coach who instructed Mr. Begg-Smith as a boy.
At the same time, at home with his parents near Vancouver, Mr. Begg-Smith was demonstrating technological savvy. In his teens, he launched several Internet advertising concerns with his older brother, a fellow moguls skier.
The Begg-Smith boys skied with a national development team in Canada, with Dale feeling he could ski at the highest levels of competition. Coaches urged them to spend less time at their computers and more on the slopes. “I was making so much money, I had to make a choice,” Dale Begg-Smith told the Vancouver Sun in 2005. “The choice at that time was business.”
The brothers began talking with Coach Desovich, a former U.S. moguls skier who had taken a coaching job in Australia, a country then aggressively bolstering its winter-sports program. He promised the brothers that if they applied for Australian citizenship and joined the Australian ski team, he would accommodate their business.
In the two years or so it took to win their Australian citizenship, the Begg-Smiths couldn’t ski in competitions. But under the tutelage of his new coach, Dale continued to practice on slopes around the world, including Perisher, Australia’s best-known ski resort. When he returned to competition, he climbed to the top of the World Cup rankings just in time for the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.
Yet at the very hour that he emerged as an athletic star, the spotlight turned to his high-tech businesses. In part that’s because the Canadian press suddenly discovered that Australia’s young star was a Canadian who had left the country in pursuit of business success. In interviews at that time with Vancouver journalists, Mr. Begg-Smith said he and his brother had started several successful companies. While declining to disclose revenue, he said the companies employed hundreds of people. When asked if he was a millionaire, he said, “Well, I drive a $300,000 car,” a Lamborghini. His coach, Mr. Desovich, said at the time that he would have liked the young skier to spend more time training.
But in moguls skiing—wherein participants shoot down a steep bump-studded course and perform aerial stunts off jumps—no amount of training can top raw talent. At the Turin Games, Mr. Begg-Smith took gold, giving Canada a deep sense of opportunity lost.
As the Canadian media took shots at Mr. Begg-Smith for having left the country, much of the Australian media were just noticing his existence. Mr. Begg-Smith had kept a low profile Down Under. By most accounts, he is a socially awkward computer geek. “He’ll never be a guy who speaks a lot,” says Bobby Aldighieri, an acquaintance and former U.S. moguls standout.
Instead of embracing him, the Australian media discovered that some self-appointed Internet police were accusing Mr. Begg-Smith and one of his companies, AdsCPM.com, of peddling invasive software. “Spam Man Wins Gold,” read one Australian headline. Mr. Begg-Smith ignored the stories.
One online Australian newspaper asked, “Has there ever been a more unloved, more unlauded, more unpopular Australian Olympic champion than Dale Begg-Smith?”
After that, the reclusive Mr. Begg-Smith became even more so, declining all requests for interviews. Exactly what services his Internet advertising companies offered and exactly how much he profited from them is a mystery. No regulatory agency is known to have charged him or his companies with wrongdoing, and marketing experts note that attacking advertising predates the invention of billboards, and that many modern-day critics decry all Internet ads as spam. By winning an Olympic gold medal, they note, Mr. Begg-Smith provided advertising critics a high-profile target.
Today, Mr. Begg-Smith appears poised to defend his Olympic title and perhaps undergo an image adjustment. His biggest supporters include Canadian ski coaches such as Peter Judge, who says that Mr. Begg-Smith’s departure helped bring about much-needed flexibility in Canadian Olympics. After his championship performance in Calgary this month, Mr. Begg-Smith had a brief press conference at the foot of the mountain, calling it gratifying that he has been credited with bringing more flexibility to Canada’s Olympic program. “What works for one person doesn’t work for another,” said Mr. Begg-Smith, declining to answer any questions about his businesses.
But the next morning at the Calgary airport, he told a reporter, “I have nothing to hide and no reason to apologize.” He has “unwound” his businesses, he said. He is focused on skiing and today merely manages his investments. “I want to win another Olympic gold medal,” he said.
Going into Sunday’s World Cup event in Lake Placid, N.Y., Mr. Begg-Smith has won two silver and three gold medals in seven World Cup events this winter.
by KEVIN HELLIKER