Phelps Post-Games

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Let's check in with Michael Phelps, shall we? How's his life going nearly a month after winning his historic eight gold medals at the Beijing Games?

Well, he's pretty tired from his whirlwind, worldwide slate of appearances.

And he's evidently very happy to be back home in Baltimore with his cuddly bulldog Herman. He's been courted by some 50 to 100 Madison Avenue-type suitors a day and I must say I'm impressed with his -- or I should say his agent's -- strategy when it comes to maintaining the value of his accomplishment as high as possible for as long as possible.

It takes some creative engineering to keep an Olympic athlete's presence alive. Even the most iconic of Olympic stars have not captured the limelight for long, once the torch of their Games has been snuffed out at the Closing Ceremonies. As grandiose as Mark Spitz's seven gold in Munich were, Spitz pretty much disappeared from public view immediately after those Games. So why would Spitz's successor, Phelps, have any better chance of captivating the public, long term? Well, for one, there are avenues besides Madison Avenue for Phelps to walk these days. Phelps posts daily to his own Facebook page, an effort that has garnered him 1.5 million Phelps Phans. Barack Obama's page doesn't draw many more fans than that.

Sure, Phelps has been sold to the usual highest-bidder endorsement suspects. Along with Visa and AT&T, his smile will soon beam out from ten million boxes of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and Frosted Flakes. But those kinds of mainstream endorsements don't tend to bring longevity for athletes who won't be seen by a large public for another four years. Where Phelps has been smart has been in connecting with products that create a story line. For instance, he signed with the language instruction company, Rosetta Stone, before the Olympics, with the express intent of learning Mandarin himself. He used the tapes, became at least proficient in passable basic Mandarin and, not only did he give Rosetta Stone an authentic endorsement, but because of his ability to throw some charm and humor around in Mandarin, he landed a multi-million-dollar deal with Matsunichi, a consumer-electronics firm based in Hong Kong.

Phelps could easily have run the risk of overexposure at this point. From Saturday Night Live to Baltimore Ravens games to David Letterman, he's been under the spotlight 24/7. But, again, both his agent's counseling and his own sincere choices have led him down the right path. To create excitement around the anticipation of Michael achieving the magic eight gold in Beijing, Speedo dangled a million dollars cash if he in fact did it. Well, he did do it...and they paid. Phelps quickly set up a non-profit foundation in his name, endowed the foundation with the million, and earmarked the money to help kids, especially inner city kids otherwise unexposed to swimming, get a chance to experience the sport. Speedo rewarded Michael's compassion by kicking in another $200 thousand.

The $5 million per year Michael Phelps was making before the Olympics has doubled now. And his agent foresees Michael pulling in $100 million in lifetime earnings. You can hearken back to the biggest names in Olympic history and discover that all that gold, all that instant glory, splashed across those bold, worldwide headlines, rarely translated into sustained notoriety, much less lifelong financial security. Jesse Owens, for all the honor he earned in Berlin, the black man who outran Hitler's Arian elite, suffered humiliation later in his life in having to stoop to stunts such as sprinting against thoroughbred race horses to make a few bucks. Jim Thorpe, despite topping some lists as the greatest athlete of the 20th century, wound up both broke and broken.

Michael Phelps is proving to be as unique an Olympian out of the water as he was in the Water Cube in Beijing.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad