Olympics Still Months Away, Swimmer Brings Home Gold
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2004; Page A01
Second in a series of occasional articles
The three Olympic swimmers and their agents, and the hair stylist, and the makeup people, and the public relations man from the swimsuit company, are crammed into a corner room on the 22nd floor of a swanky hotel overlooking New York's Times Square.
Michael Phelps, who is aiming for seven gold medals at the Summer Games in Athens, has just had his hair done in the bathroom, and is checking himself out in the bedroom mirror.
He and the others are about to help Speedo launch a new line of racing suits before a national TV audience. All have Speedo endorsement deals. As they wait, one reviews Speedo's talking points. Phelps doesn't need to brush up. He knows the mantra by heart. "It's like, 'Repeat Speedo as many times as possible,' " he jokes.
An hour later, during his 55-second dialogue with "Today" show host Matt Lauer, when Phelps tells millions of viewers he is looking forward to the Olympics, he deftly adds, "This year is a very exciting year for me, and Speedo."
Twenty-five years after the Olympic movement allowed professional athletes to compete in the games, Phelps has become the epitome of the modern American corporate Olympian.
Many Olympic athletes get corporate stipends or support from companies that believe such associations help sell their products. For most, says Bob Condron, director of media services for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the funding pays the bills and allows them to train. Phelps, he said, is at another "extreme of the spectrum."
Although he is only 18, is less than a year out of high school and still lives with his mother in a Baltimore County townhouse, he already is a millionaire.
He has been a professional swimmer since he was 16. He is the youngest male ever to turn pro in his sport. He has sponsors, agents, lawyers, accountants, deals, charities, obligations, his own Web site, and his own logo, a jazzy-looking MP over the name Michael Phelps.
He also has looks, poise and smarts. This summer, thanks to a cascade of corporate marketing deals, he could become the richest professional swimmer ever.
Phelps is aiming to match, or beat, the record of American swimming legend Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Such a feat, never equaled, would be glorious enough. But Speedo, with whom Phelps already has a multimillion dollar, multiyear endorsement deal, has added the promise of another $1 million if he pulls it off.
It has been a brilliant marketing coup: generating extensive media coverage that, to the delight of his corporate sponsors, has catapulted Phelps into the public spotlight as no other swimmer since Spitz.
His athletic achievements haven't hurt. Four years ago, at the age of 15, Phelps became the youngest male in over 60 years to make the U.S. Olympic team. A year later he became the youngest male swimmer to set a world record.
Since then he has set a string of world records -- bagging five in one meet last summer. He currently holds three: in the 200-meter butterfly, the 200-meter individual medley and the 400-meter individual medley. In February, he narrowly missed a world record in the 200-meter backstroke.
He quickly got the attention of the corporate world, betting that he would "podium" often in Athens, as one executive put it, and eager to bask in the halo of his fame.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company