Phelps needs at least four golds

After years of personal financial sacrifice, Olympians can't reap endorsement riches by merely winning a gold medal. With dozens of potential gold medalists representing the United States, athletes must break through to become household names. There is only a select group of companies willing to invest in an Olympic athlete when the Games are through. Plus, the battle to keep that athlete's flame alive will be harder in a world dominated by a September of NFL and college football games.

With that in mind, here are the top Olympic athletes who have the greatest opportunity to ink lucrative deals should they stand atop the medal podium in Athens. Noticeably absent are the stars of track and field, which has the BALCO scandal hanging over the heads of names like Marion Jones. Also absent are volleyball players Misty May and Kerri Walsh, who were featured in a Super Bowl commercial playing beach volleyball in the snow. They have generated some marketing buzz, but due to May's aggravation of an abdominal injury, it's not clear if she can play. The no-show would turn May and Walsh into this Olympics' version of bobsledders Jean Racine and Jen Davidson, who were marketed to the hilt for Salt Lake City until Racine dropped Davidson weeks before the Games began.

Michael Phelps, 19, swimmer
Phelps is clearly in a category by himself. He's graced the covers of ESPN The Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Time. He already has national commercials with Visa, Argent and AT&T Wireless, and NBC is sure to make him their prime poster boy. In one of the greatest pre-Olympic hype campaigns ever, Speedo has offered $1 million to Phelps if he can win seven gold medals -- tying Mark Spitz's performance from 1972. Phelps hasn't backed down from the pressure. While he has said he'll be happy with one medal, those thinking about investing in a post-Olympics Phelps won't be. He likely will have to win at least four medals to be relevant in the post-Athens marketplace. When athletes previously stated plans to win a large number of gold medals -- see Marion Jones, who had a goal to win five golds and only won three in the 2000 Games -- they have been seen as a disappointment if they fell short.

Jennie Finch, 23, softball player
Finch came to the forefront when she beat out Anna Kournikova for Page 2's America's Hottest Female of 2003. She has since done plenty in the business world, inking deals with Sealy, Sprint and Bolle and has a signature line of Mizuno products. Despite offers, she has stayed out of magazines like Playboy, Maxim and FHM and has instead appeared in magazines such as Glamour and Modern Bride (Finch is soon to wed Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Casey Daigle). Finch can make herself more relevant if she pitches a gem in the gold medal game, but her endorsement potential could be kept in check because there isn't a highly visible women's professional softball league to keep her name in the news. Doing more sports broadcasting -- she's done analyst work with ESPN and has a segment on "This Week in Baseball" -- could also aid in making people talk about Finch more on a year-round basis. Autographed cards of Finch have sold for more than $50 in recent weeks on eBay.

Rulon Gardner, 32, Greco-Roman wrestler
After shocking Alexandr Karelin, the Russian who had not lost a match in 13 years, to win the gold in Sydney, Gardner has had a tough road back. Two and a half years ago, he got lost in a Wyoming forest in the dead of winter and after being saved had to have one of his toes amputated. In March, he was in a motorcycle accident. Gardner, who has endorsement deals with 24-Hour Fitness and Asics, is now the favorite to win again. The 300-pound Olympian figures to make the most money in motivational speaking but would be the perfect candidate for a witty food advertisement if he pulls off another gold. Should Gardner falter, weightlifter Shane Hamman is the big-guy alternate waiting in the wings. Hamman, who has appeared in national television commercials for Allstate and Gateway and is featured on millions of bottles of Powerade, is trying to become the first American weightlifter to win gold in the unlimited division in 48 years.

The other swimmers: Natalie Coughlin, 21, Amanda Beard, 23, Kaitlin Sandeno, 21, Jenny Thompson, 31, Gary Hall Jr., 29, Lenny Krayzelberg, 28, Aaron Peirsol, 21, Ian Crocker, 21, and Brenden Hansen, 22
U.S. swimmers automatically have an endorsement advantage because each year they win more gold medals than in any other sport. That fact also makes it harder for one individual performance to stand out. Coughlin, who will make an attempt to win five gold medals (three in relays), has received a lot of press heading into the Games, having been aggressive on the magazine photo shoot circuit. Beard (four medals), Hall (eight medals) and Thompson (10 medals) are already well-known by the Olympic-watching public thanks to their success in past Olympiads. Sandeno, who has a good chance of winning four medals, already has deals with Nike and Mutual of Omaha, which has also signed Beard, Hansen and Peirsol through the 2008 Olympics.

Peirsol and Crocker could get attention in the 200-meter backstroke and 100-meter butterfly, respectively. Krayzelberg -- who currently has a deal with Monster.com -- returned with three medals from Sydney but didn't really break through the marketing clutter. The ability to garner endorsement deals could not only depend on the color of the medal but also the quality of the moment -- the attention focused on that event by the cameras of NBC and their affiliates. Generally, lucrative opportunities also can surface based on unique circumstances. Gary Hall Jr. has diabetes and has structured deals with Novolog, an insulin injection and Lifescan, a blood glucose monitor. Crocker's bout with depression could lead to a deal with Zoloft, the drug he used to get over his illness.

Carly Patterson, 16, Gymnast
Patterson, who has deals with Visa, AT&T Wireless and McDonald's, has a chance to be one of the up-and-comers of the Olympics. She tied with Courtney Kupets for the all-around title at the Olympic trials in June and she has a golden smile to go along with her impressive skills. If she shines with the U.S. team, she'll have an opportunity to build business relationships leading up to Beijing. More immediately, Patterson is scheduled to be part of the 2004 Tour of Gymnastic Champions, with performances across the country from September through November.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.