Forget the Gold. Go for the Wheaties Box

When the Olympics get under way next month, Kerri Strug won't be on a balance beam or limbering up for her floor routine. The gymnast who captured America's heart at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta by vaulting with a freshly injured ankle to win the gold for the U.S. gymnastics team will travel to Sydney, Australia, not to compete, but for a task almost as important - building her online brand.

The 21-year-old Stanford University student will spend much of her time at the Games updating her diary on "I'm going to tell people about my trip and about my take on the gymnastics competition," Strug told I think people want to know what it's like to see the Olympics from a different perspective." Maybe so. But at a time when merchandising deals can seem as central to an athlete's career as his or her physical condition, a personal Web site isn't just a virtual scrapbook. It's a means for athletes to keep themselves in public view, to supplement whatever exposure the traditional media afford and, ultimately, to show corporate sponsors the robustness of their fan base.

"All sports is about consumer interest," says Jerome Stanley, an L.A.-based agent whose client, NFL wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, boasts a potent Web presence. "So what we're trying to do [with athletes' sites] is spread the brand to people so that we can reinforce those who have interest, while at the same time growing the space." For Olympians, who typically have fewer chances to shine in the media spotlight than do professional athlete from the four major team sports (football, basketball, baseball and hockey), a compelling Web site is that much more important.

"Many Olympic sports don't give people a chance to look in the window very often," says Nashville-based agent Ray Flynn. "So we have to open the window for people." Flynn, who specializes in track and field, is one of the few agents to put a priority on Web strategy. Moreover, he actually builds, shapes and markets the sites of his clients, which include Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey, American high-jumper Amy Acuff, and Marla Runyan, a U.S. marathoner who is legally blind.þSome predict that Runyan's fame could reach Strug-like proportions in Sydney.

To achieve this, Flynn says, it's not enough to rely on, which is orchestrating athlete chats, or on the mainstream media.

"The sites give us a better opportunity to close deals, to make things happen commercially," says Flynn, who recently negotiated a Web deal between Runyan and the U.S. Association for Blind Athletes.

The Web also offers a chance for athletes to reinvent themselves. For instance, Strug will look to position herself online as a fitness guru rather than a gymnast, according to her agent, Jill Peterson-Burns.

"In a time when many athletes are thinking of themselves as businesspeople, it's a chance to re-brand," Peterson-Burns says.

But leaning on agents isn't the only way athletes are establishing their cyber-credentials. Eight past and present Olympians, including Strug, swimmer Jenny Thompson and volleyball player Mike Whitmarsh, have deals in place with portalþA division of Broadband Sports, the portal builds sites that reside both on AthletesDirect and separately on independent domains.

According to Media Metrix, the company draws about 1 million unique visitors per month and has agreements with about 250 athletes. AthletesDirect is still formulating its Olympic plans, making sure it conforms to the rules imposed by NBC.

"I don't think we're the ones you come to to find out who won the race," says AthletesDirect senior VP and general manager Greg Hebner. "But I think we can give fans a first-person look they can't get anywhere else." As the Olympics draw near, sports portals and agents are competing to attract top athletes.

While representatives like Flynn have the advantage of close contact with the athletes, Flynn admits that his efforts aren't likely to bring in a lot of revenue. A portal such as AthletesDirect, on the other hand, has licensing deals with AOL and Lycos, though revenue can still be an issue, as it was for the AthletesVillage portal, which closed its doors earlier this summer.

Portals also can leverage the popularity of their top-tier stars - such as Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez and Johnson, all of whom are members of AthletesDirect - giving Olympic athletes a chance to piggyback their celebrity success.

Whatever their approach, athlete sites will be mostly marginalized by mainstream media at the Games in Sydney. But with NBC carefully controlling this summer's Olympics programming, such sites might be among the few outlets that cut through the tightly controlled coverage.þNevertheless, not everyone is confident that the Olympics and the Web are a good match.

"I'm a little skeptical," Stanley says. "I think it plays better when you have a season and multiple games, an infrastructure that keeps athletes in the public eye." Even Flynn admits that there are obstacles. "I know we're taking a bit of a gamble here," he says.Strug, meanwhile, sees the silver lining. "It's very advantageous to athletes who aren't as well-known and want to get some exposure." And a lot easier than tearing up an ankle.

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