What do Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have in common?
If you were reading this article anywhere else, the answer would be about their records of excellence in Olympic sports. But in this space we measure impact in baby names. The three dominant athletes have had the exact same impact on American naming: none at all.
The Olympics used to be a force in baby name trends. Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci made Nadia an overnight smash in 1976. Katarina was a rarity in the US until German figure skater Katarina Witt showcased it. The name debuted in the top-1000 list the year of Witt’s second consecutive Olympic gold.
It’s not just the “glamour” sports, the ones that shine a literal spotlight on the artistry of a single athlete performing a routine. Short track speed skater Apolo Ohno launched the popularity of his first name, in both single-L and double-L spellings, with his gold performance in 2002. Then there’s Bode, a name that didn’t register in US baby name stats at all in 2001. One year later, after skier Bode Miller took a silver medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics, 131 little Bodes were born. The name then entered a four-year Olympic boom and bust cycle, peaking with a Bode count of 286 in 2010.
A major factor in the non-impact of Simone, Michael and Katie is surely the names themselves. Michael and Katie are so familiar it’s hard for any celebrity to move the needle on their popularity. (And Katie Ledecky’s given name is the currently unfashionable Kathleen.) The name Simone seemed to have the greatest potential since it had never been very common, but even that name would have had to overcome downward momentum. The peak Simone era was 1988-2008; Biles was born right in the middle.
Yet some Olympic stars of the past were able to transcend trends. The name Dorothy had declined for more than 50 years in a row before figure skating champion Dorothy Hamill give it a bump up in 1976. The name MaryLou’s only popularity spike in the past half-century followed gymnast Mary Lou Retton’s Olympic triumph in 1984.
I challenge you to find a major name-maker from recent Olympic Games. Not Missy Franklin or Gabby Douglas, who between them earned six gold medals in London in 2012. Not Usain Bolt, the greatest sprinter of all time. The closest I’ve come is Steele Johnson, a 2016 synchronized diving medalist, but the name Steele was already rising in the years before its moderate Olympic bump.
The Olympic baby name drought may say something about the changing role of the Olympics in an increasingly diverse and fragmented media culture. Or it may just be one more sign of the overwhelming importance of style and novelty in contemporary naming. When a synchronized diver can out-impact Simone Biles, it’s really about the name, not the fame.
I look forward to seeing whether Sunisa shows up in next year or so!
Interesting! In 2016 I was fostering a baby girl and daydreaming what I would name her if we adopted her, and Simone was on the list after both Biles and Manuel. Her story took a different turn and we didn’t adopt her, but it was definitely a consideration.