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Eight Olympians who could turn gold into cash

Aside from forecasting gold medalists, one of the hardest predictions for the Summer Olympics is: What athlete will be championed by corporate America afterward?
Image: Wheaties box featuring Mary Lou Retton
Can any Olympian ever win over our hearts — and corporate dollars — like Mary Lou Retton? Maybe not, but we have a list of those who have an outside shot.Ted Thai / Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Aside from forecasting gold medalists, one of the hardest predictions during the quadrennial summer Olympics is: What athlete will be championed by corporate America when the cheering stops?

Every so often, there are Olympians — think Bruce Jenner and Mary Lou Retton — who break out on the marketing scene afterward in legendary fashion.

Swimmer Michael Phelps, who has deals with Visa, PowerBar and others, is the most recent example. After the 2004 Athens Games, when he earned eight medals, he signed a four-year pact with Matsunichi — maker of MP3 players — which experts cited as perhaps the biggest deal ever by an Olympic athlete, worth about $1 million a year.

Sometimes, the endorsement hype begins before the Games. In 2000, Marion Jones was featured in television commercials for Gatorade, Nike and others. Her pre-Olympic endorsements were believed to exceed $1 million. That number jumped after she won five medals in Sydney — and collapsed when she was stripped of them in 2007 after admitting she had taken steroids before the Games.

Occasionally, a U.S. athlete comes out of nowhere to become a marketing sensation. That occurred during the 2002 Winter Olympics when Sarah Hughes, age 16, captured the gold in figure skating. Afterward she earned millions in endorsements, inking pacts with General Electric, Campbell’s Soup and even a memorabilia company.

Once athletes depart Beijing, companies will jockey to hand cash to the most marketable ones. Gold medalists are most in demand, obviously, but if there’s a compelling story or attractive potential pitchman behind a silver or bronze, they’ll be wooed too.

It’s unlikely anyone will match Phelps’ endorsement income. Few sports other than swimming offer the chance for eight gold medals, which will earn him an extra $1 million bonus from Speedo alone, beyond what other firms may throw his way. But a handful ot athletes could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars this year based on a successful Olympics.

What is the key to matching up athlete and company after the Games?

”Best case, the athlete embodies the values of the brand,” said Tim Calkins, a sports marketing professor at Northwestern University. “The other major factor is finding an athlete who will act in a professional manner.

”The Olympics is a unique event when it comes to sponsorships, because there is a sense of purity in the games," he said. "Most compete for the joy of achievement and being their best.  This makes Olympic athletes appealing for sponsors.  The challenge is that there are a lot of Olympic athletes, and they are only briefly in the public eye, so it is important to find someone who will stand out.”

So which U.S. athletes, little-known to the general public today, will attract the eyes of corporate America in Beijing? Our picks exclude NBA professionals, such as LeBron James, who are already ensconced in the American marketing scene, as well as competitors like Phelps, who already have gained a high level of fame and endorsements from the Olympics.

for our list of eight U.S. athletes who, starting on 8/8/08, might pique the interest of national marketers.