Leading up to the Salt Lake City Olympics, Kristi Yamaguchi made the comment that whoever wins the gold medal, his or her life would be changed forever -- unless it was Michelle Kwan, who was "already as famous as it is possibly to be in figure skating."
Certainly, this was true in the past. In 1976 Dorothy Hamill said, I'll either win the gold and have a career with Ice Capades (she later bought the show), or get silver and go back to secretarial school. Skaters like Katarina Witt, Victor Petrenko, Oksana Baiul and Torville and Dean gained a lot of opportunities that might otherwise have been closed to them. Scott Hamilton and Kristi herself said that life just wouldn't have been the same without that medal in their pockets.
But I don't think that Sarah Hughes' life would have turned out much different in the long run if she had won silver or bronze at Salt Lake City. I don't think Tara's career would have changed much. With a silver instead of a gold she still would have had professional opportunities for endorsements and touring with SOI, etc.
What about Alexei Yagudin (an immensely popular performer with or without a medal), Sale and Pelletiere or Berezhnaya and Sikharudlidze? Did the Olympic gold medal "change the lives" of Anasinna and Peiserat?