Michael Phelps: Olympian and a celebrity. (Michael Patrick/AP)

We Americans can spend hours watching the Olympics — that magical event that briefly makes life feel like one long, wonderful game of WiiSports Resort — without experiencing any of the guilt associated with, say, a day-long “Jersey Shore” marathon. Tuning into the Games is an act of patriotism, an acknowledgement of humanity’s global interconnectedness — why, one can argue that it’s even healthy. After all, witnessing the accomplishments of athletes in peak physical condition is really, really close to doing actual exercise. (It is, isn’t it? Because that’s what I plan to tell my DailyBurn app.)

The monitoring of our children’s TV time gets a free pass during the Olympics, too. Let them watch as much as they want, we say. It’s good for them! Seriously, consider the following two scenarios:

A. While watching swimmers compete in the 50-meter freestyle, you lean over to your son/daughter and say, “If you apply yourself, maybe you could compete in the Olympics one day.”

B. While watching an episode of “Wipe Out,” you lean over to your son/daughter and say, “If you apply yourself, maybe your body can ricochet off a huge rubber ball and potentially render you unconscious one day.”

Clearly A is the superior option. We want our kids to witness what these Olympians do because we believe they have achieved something admirable, unlike all those mindless, fame-seeking celebrities we worship on a daily basis.

But let’s be clear: those Olympians — while disciplined athletes who have trained extraordinarily hard for this moment — are celebrities, too. If they haven’t become Michael Phelps-famous yet, this summer’s competition will take many of them into the stratosphere of the well-known and frequently photographed. And while their focus as the games begin may be on their balance beam skills or archery prowess, there’s no denying that most of these athletes dive into those pools and step onto those fields knowing there’s a good chance they are about to become famous. The question is how they will deal with that when it hits.

Fame is a forever proposition. Years from now, long after the hoopla in London has subsided, these young-at-the-moment people will make headlines when they have a baby or write a book, when they get divorced or arrested, when they sign a new endorsement deal or become broadcast commentators during some future Olympics in a city that has yet to be determined. And all of that will happen because, during an exceptionally hot summer in 2012, on the eve of a contentious presidential election, they were the biggest stars on television.

All of us will be cheering them on during this two-week period. And we’ll be watching them afterward as well, to see whether they use that well-earned Olympic notoriety to do something of value, or — like a certain 1976 decathlon gold medalist — to keep us all in couch potato mode, determined to keep up with the Kardashians.