For millions of Americans, gymnast Paul Hamm's (search) fame began only when the broad-shouldered Olympian shrugged off a fall in the vaulting competition last week and made an inspired comeback to win gold. So was credit card giant Visa U.S.A. just lucky that it's been featuring his face for months inside its customers' billing statements?

Hardly. A new generation of Olympic athletes is just starting to enjoy its moment in the spotlight. But for the competitors — and agents and marketers — trying to capitalize on the short-lived glory achieved in Athens, it is increasingly about signing contracts months or even years before the games began.

Visa signed swimmer Michael Phelps (search) — who won eight medals in this Olympics — to a marketing and sponsorship contract 2 1/2 years ago, when he was just 16 and virtually unknown. Well before any medals were awarded, U.S. softball pitcher Jennie Finch (search) had signed deals with Bank of America (BAC) and Bolle sunglasses and gymnast Carly Patterson (search) had agreed to endorsements for AT&T Wireless (AWE) and McDonald's (MCD).

"The general window for the Olympics is fairly short to begin with, but it is pretty clear that your ability to leverage these athletes and build excitement up toward the games has become an important part of the marketing strategy," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center (search) at the University of Oregon.

"I think most of the athletes that are competing today grew up in an environment where they witnessed the success of ... the post-1984 generation of Olympic stars and want a piece of that, and understand that it's going to take some good marketing," he said.

In the days since the Athens Games began, a growing roster of athletes have captured attention that could propel them into lucrative roles in television ads, public appearances and on the speakers' circuit.

But while a few are real surprise stories, many are the very athletes that marketers identified before the games as most likely to succeed in the competition for dollars. When Sports Business Daily (search), a trade publication, polled sports and advertising executives in June, Phelps was picked as the most marketable Olympian, with Finch, swimmer Natalie Coughlin (search), wrestler Rulon Gardner (search) and Patterson next on the list.

All but Coughlin had already signed endorsement deals by that point, a sign of how things have changed in the way that Olympic marketing stars are made.

"Back in the days of Bruce Jenner (search) and Carl Lewis (search) you kind of had to perform and you had to win the gold and then you racked up the endorsements afterward," said Bob Dorfman of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco, who authors a newsletter analyzing athletes' marketing potential. "These days most of the big endorsements that these kids are getting are leading up to the games and during the games."

Nobody exemplifies that better than Phelps, who has been featured since June in commercials for Visa and is the subject of a credit card, issued by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., with his likeness on it.

"We do this (sponsor athletes) often times years in advance and the quid pro quo is that they give us the right to use their image and story line in our members' marketing," said Michael Rolnick, director of corporate relations for Visa, speaking by telephone from Athens. "Our Olympic marketing is designed to build just before the games."

Despite the shift to solidifying endorsements well before the games, Dorfman still believes that a gold medal can be worth $10 million to some athletes with the right mix of star quality and marketing savvy. But it's difficult to assess the worth of Olympic stardom. Visa, for example, won't disclose details of its deals with athletes.

Even the fact that Hamm might have to share his gold medal should not really affect his marketability, Dorfman said Sunday. The International Gymnastics Federation acknowledged Saturday that a scoring error wrongly gave Hamm the gold in the all-around over Yang Tae-young of South Korea. Though the federation says it cannot change the results, the South Koreans plan to appeal in hopes of getting a duplicate gold medal.

"It's not like he did anything wrong. It was a judging error. I don't think people are going to say, `Oh, he didn't really win a gold,'" Dorfman said.

Swangard agreed. "The bigger issue is what he does now. I think people's memory will fade on what actually happened," he said. "He'll be in the record books as the gold medalist."

There's some disagreement among observers about whether Coughlin, who at one point resisted signing with an agent, is arriving too late to claim a share of the endorsement pie. One school of thought is that, by doing so, her value to marketers is far higher than it would have been before she won any medals. Now she has won five.

But for Coughlin and other athletes, reaping the full marketing potential of their medals will require patience, observers say. The difficulty of marketing tagged to Olympic medals is that the games and many of the sports they feature are only in the public's eye for two weeks every four years, meaning many of the athletes risk being quickly forgotten.

The challenge for corporate sponsors is pairing up with athletes with broad appeal. For athletes, the key is to renew that appeal by leapfrogging off promotional all-star tours and future Olympics to renew their image with consumers.

"What you're looking for in athletic deals is athletes who can transcend their sports," said Kevin Adler, a vice president of Relay Sponsorship and Event Marketing (search), a corporate sponsorship consulting firm in Chicago.

So who has that special appeal? Phelps' All-American good looks and compelling story make him a natural, observers say.

Patterson, too, is likely to do well, although probably not to the extent of say, Mary Lou Retton (search), the 1984 gymnastics gold medal winner whose smile and force of personality has her back in ads again this year. Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, have a great story to tell, but some marketing experts say the gold medal winner's nasal voice could make him a tough sell.

Then there are a handful of female athletes likely to do well by tapping into sex appeal — Finch and swimmer Amanda Beard (search) are the ones most often cited.

It's not yet clear which of these athletes, if any, will be featured on the Wheaties box. The folks at General Mills Inc. (GSI), which makes Wheaties, say they're paying close attention to what's happening in Athens but won't disclose who they're interested in.

But Adler, the Chicago marketing executive, is confident we'll be seeing plenty of at least a few of these athletes.

Adler recalls numerous agents inside the athletes' center in Salt Lake City two years ago, when his firms represented Allstate Insurance Co. and Hallmark Cards Inc. as the companies formed ties with participants in the Winter Olympics. With the games still in progress, the agents were making and taking calls from scores of companies, all interested in hitching themselves to the rising stars of the right athletes.

"I'm sure the phones are ringing," said Adler, whose corporate clients don't currently have endorsement contracts with athletes. "You're certain to see a handful of deals coming out of Athens."