Forget the medals, only the brand deals are worth their weight in gold

As Beijing faces the inevitable host-country financial fallout, canny medallists are returning home with lucrative sponsorship tie-ups under their belts

Now that the great Beijing bore is drawing to a merciful close it is time to reflect on its awfulness. The dispiriting way in which the Chinese state marshals its population like obedient ants; the grating repetition of the tiresome misnomer “Team GB”; the shrill tabloid triumphalism; the overheated excitement of the massed cohorts of the BBC, one of whose number kept shouting excitedly about our growing tally of “medaws”; above all, the huge overblown mindlessness of it all.

In economic terms the fallout from an Olympic Games is usually the near bankruptcy of the host nation, which, once the rest of the world has packed its bags and departed, is left with a deserted, wind-blown stadium and an empty “village” awaiting the arrival of damp rot and rats. The Chinese won’t worry about that. Some 5,000 people were displaced and made homeless, most without compensation, to make room for the “iconic” bird’s nest Olympic arena. But they were only people. This was an Olympic Games.

But there is another economic fallout, one that bestows vast fortunes into the pockets of competitors who return home with gold medaws. This year, one man above all others stands to amass a fortune from his extraordinary achievements. While our winners will return home to the pleasure of Gordon Brown’s company at a Downing Street reception and may look forward to investiture ceremonies at Buckingham Palace (expect knighthoods and damehoods to rain down in profusion), Michael Phelps will land back in the US an extremely wealthy fellow. Why?Because of the extraordinary, man-made symbiosis between athletic prowess and marketing. Extraordinary because it bypasses logic and exposes the folly and gullibility of almost everyone involved. Phelps is held to be the most successful Olympian ever (though sprinters, deprived of the many variations on a theme of swimming from one end of a pool to another, disagree) with a tally to date of 16 medals including 14 golds. It’s a record, says his agent, that is worth millions and millions of dollars.

Phil de Picciotto, president of Octagon, the sports marketing firm that has represented Phelps since he turned professional at the age of 16, says of his client’s earnings potential, “Without being able to put a number on it, over time it’s certainly possible that this will go from the tens of millions into the hundreds of millions.”

Phelps already represents Speedo, AT&T and Visa. With the exception of Speedo, which is directly related to his sport, these marketing attachments make no logical sense. Why should anyone buy from AT&T because it is endorsed by a gangling, slightly slack-jawed and semi-articulate lad who excels at swimming? Why should anyone subscribe to Visa because the world’s greatest Olympian lends his name to the company?Is an Olympic athlete more trustworthy than a couch potato? (The record of drugs abuse – not Phelps’s, of course – suggests otherwise.) Is athletic prowess something that rubs off on the buyer of a Visa card supported by a human dolphin? Are we so desperate to be associated with success that we will fall for this kind of marketing ploy? Dreadful to think that maybe we are.

On the other hand, Datamonitor thinks the cult of celebrity has gone too far. It says, “Research shows that celebrities and athletes are the least trusted of all company/brand spokespersons. Despite this, millions of dollars are continually invested in such endorsements.

“The concept of celebrity has transcended attachment to individual people and become attached in some cases to actual products. For example, personal technology has become dominated by products that have effectively achieved celebrity status themselves and actual celebrity endorsement is not even necessary.”

If I understand that correctly, an iPhone is a kind of celebrity. This a development entirely to be welcomed. I would far rather stand out in the rain for hours in the hope of seeing a Nokia pass by on the red carpet than catch a glimpse of Keira Knightly or a Gallagher brother.

If Datamonitor is right and so too are the advocates of celebrity endorsement, it would make sense for gadgets to endorse other products. If, for example, the iPod Nano were to lend its name to Pot Noodle, renaming it Pod Noodle, the buyers who enjoy both products would feel comforted and reassured.

Talking of reassurance. Michael Phelps has one useful contribution to make. The news that he breakfasts daily on three fried egg sandwiches, with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, fried onions and mayonnaise, followed by three chocolate-chip pancakes, a five-egg omelette, three sugar-coated slices of French toast and a bowl of grits washed down with two cups of coffee, will come as a relief to all those sturdy Brits who see such a diet as mere snacking. v

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