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Marketers push Olympians into spotlight

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Quick. Name an American athlete who's expected to make headlines during the Salt Lake Olympics.

How about skier Picabo Street or figure skater Michelle Kwan? They're both established, recognizable athletes who through past success have made themselves familiar to legions of fans.

Now imagine you're a sports marketing specialist. Just like a coach, it's your job to discover and groom another Olympic medalist.

Although the Salt Lake Games are seven months away, sports agents and marketing executives are hard at work this summer, hoping to cultivate a new stable of American stars.

"Since January and February of this year, we've had a team of two dozen people working on our plans for the Salt Lake Olympics," said Dave Mingey, a spokesman at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

The average American probably doesn't know bobsledders Jean Racine and Jen Davidson, speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno or skeleton racer Lincoln DeWitt, the world's top athlete in a daring and dangerous event.

They're not household names — yet.

But before last year's Sydney Olympics, how many Americans knew swimmer Misty Hyman? She won gold and barely missed a world record in the 200 butterfly by beating heavily favored Susie O'Neill of Australia.

Remember wrestler Rulon Gardner? The 286-pound Greco-Roman gold medalist defeated powerful Aleksandr Kareline in the Sydney final, handing the Russian his first loss in 13 years.

"They did what the Olympics are all about," said Evan Morgenstein, a North Carolina-based agent. "Under great stress and incredible odds, they stepped up and beat somebody who was not supposed to be beaten."

Morgenstein is betting on the opposite approach with his top clients. Racine and Davidson form the world's best women's bobsled team, dominating the World Cup last season in an event that makes its Olympic debut in Salt Lake City.

"They fit the mold," Morgenstein said. "They're talented, they're successful and it's a first-time Olympic sport."

Morgenstein said he has secured three books and a deal to put their faces on cereal boxes. He won't reveal much because announcements are pending but says the women already have contracts "in the mid-six figures."

"We're doing OK," Racine said.

It's good money, for sure, but it's little compared to the reported $20 million that golfer Tiger Woods makes annually from Nike. Golf World magazine says Woods earned $54 million last year from a dozen endorsement deals.

But this is the Olympics, and the athletes will take what they can get.

DeWitt, for one, recently decided to find an agent. His girlfriend had been helping him deal with sponsors, but the work became dizzying after he won the World Cup skeleton title last season.

"It's a process I never thought I needed," DeWitt said. "Then after the season went well, I thought I should change."

DeWitt hopes to hire an agent by the end of the month. He expects the move will give him more time for skeleton, where competitors go down the bobsled run face-first at speeds reaching 80 mph.

"Agents have contacts with all the big companies," DeWitt said. "One advantage is that they do a lot of the legwork you would have to do otherwise, and that will help me concentrate on training."

DeWitt also realized the reach of marketing power when he was promoted this summer in U.S. Olympic Committee television ads.

He was shown as a cardboard cutout at a friend's birthday party, unable to attend in person because of training. The message was that Olympic athletes work every day year-round, not just every four years.

"Most people who have seen those ads tell me they think they're pretty funny," DeWitt said.

Nike plans to have a big presence in Salt Lake.

It has an apparel contract with the U.S. Speedskating Team, among others, and one of its targeted stars is Ohno, a 19-year-old short-track standout who quickly has risen to the top of his sport.

"We'll certainly be looking to provide him with a fair amount of public relations support so people get to know Apolo from the first day he steps on the ice," Mingey said.