This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The Michael Phelps story drew record numbers of viewers worldwide to the Beijing Games last August. For the first time in many an Olympiad, there was a larger-than-life name, face, and body to follow. By the time the swimmers first stepped onto the deck of the Water Cube, the swimming venue that housed all the pool races over the first half of the Games, we the fans were well immersed in the Phelps mystique. From the macro story of his potential to one-up Mark Spitz and win gold in eight events, to the micro details of his pet bulldog and his size-14 flipper feet, we just couldn't lap up enough of Michael Phelps.
But what about the other swimmers trying like heck to leave their mark at the Water Cube? There were others who won their own gold, broke their own world records, yet they all stood in the tall shadows of the fabulous Phelps. And there was a Catch-22 to that undeniable second-banana role they all played in Beijing. On one hand, it was true that none of them could command much attention because the spotlight was focused so sharply on Phelps. On the other hand, by following Phelps' every stroke, we were excited by just about everything than transpired at the Water Cube.
Jason Lezak is a perfect example. Just before the men's 4 x 100 freestyle relay, the American team had a quick pep talk in the locker room. Lezak was the elder statesman and was going to swim the anchor leg so he did the talking. He reminded them that he was on the relay that took silver in Australia, and then bronze in Athens. This time, he told them, was their time. Well, there is story enough. Two times the Americans were denied. This was their time. But as perhaps one of the most dramatic finishes in all Olympic history played out, it wasn't the Americans finally winning the gold that made a lasting impression. It was the fact that Lezak's super-human performance as anchor meant Michael Phelps would indeed have his chance for eight gold, instead of seven gold and one silver. The photos that circled the globe after that incredible race were not of the race's hero, Jason Lezak. They were of a raging Phelps, crazy in his astonishment at the moment of victory. Never mind. Post Beijing, the swimming stars were grateful to ride on the Phelps exposure and many of them were also grateful to sign endorsement contracts because of that exposure. Madison Avenue traditionally dictates a short marketing shelf-life for Olympians, maybe only six to twelve months following their gold medal performances.
Trouble is, these low economic times have hit those athletes hard. A swimmer trains so many hours a day that working for a living at the same time is really tough. They can't survive the four years in between Games without endorsements. For Lezak and many of the other Beijing stars, their usual motivational speaking dates have been cancelled this year. Lezak lost his six-figure Nike backing when the company pulled out of the swimming business altogether. He's even been unsuccessful in pitching himself as a hair-replacement spokesperson.
There's plenty of money still rolling into the Phelps bank account, even if he did lose Kellogg's after his bong picture circulated and pretty much replaced the image of the eight gold medals draped across his chest. But for the others, they not only had to accept their supporting cast roles in Beijing, the crucial money they need to flow their way right after their Olympic exposure has dried up this time around. Several of them, including Lezak, say their financial woes may well mean they can't afford to train for the next Games, London 2012.
Imagine. We all thought the big news story of 2008 was the Phelps Olympics. Turns out it was the crash of our economy. And for dozens of athletes, with the crash coming on the heels of their Olympic moments, the reality that their post-Games endorsement window is just about shut renders Beijing somewhat of a bitter memory.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
Banner image: (L-R) Brendan Hansen, Michael Phelps, Aaron Piersol and Jason Lezak of the United States hold the American Flag after receiving the gold medal in the Men's 4x100 Medley Relay at the National Aquatics Centre during Day 9 of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on August 17. Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images