NEW YORK -- Ryan Lochte recently celebrated his five Olympic medals the way any red-blooded American male would do: by heading to Las Vegas, slipping into a tiny, star-spangled hot-pink Speedo, and partying alongside Britain's Prince Harry.
Lochte's Sin City revelry capped off a week-long promotional blitz by the swimmer and aspiring actor, including a cameo on the CW soap 90210, a stroll down the red carpet at the premiere of The Expendables 2, a striptease performance for Giuliana Rancic and Joan Rivers on E!'s Fashion Police and a visit to The Tonight Show, where he reiterated his desire to appear on The Bachelor or Dancing With the Stars.
Lochte may be courting the limelight more unabashedly than other members of Team USA, but he's certainly not the only athlete turning to the mechanisms of Hollywood -- and reality television in particular -- to parlay a moment of Olympic glory into a lucrative showbiz career.
Olympians have flocked recently to reality TV like moths to a flame: More than a dozen former and current Olympians have appeared on Dancing With the Stars, and two of them -- gymnast Shawn Johnson and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno -- will return to the show's all-star season next month. Last week, gymnast Gabby Douglas paid a visit to America's Got Talent and Michael Phelps, announced plans for a reality series on the Golf Channel. Then there's the guy who arguably started it all: Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner, better known to a generation of TV viewers as Kim Kardashian's stepdad than "the World's Greatest Athlete."
For an increasingly image-savvy generation of athletes, a career in television -- particularly reality television -- has become at least as appealing as an appearance on the front of a Wheaties box. The driving force behind this trend, say former Olympians and sports marketing experts, is the desire -- and in many cases, the financial necessity -- to extend their time in the spotlight.
Most Olympians, even groundbreakers like Douglas, have a narrow window of opportunity to cash in on their gold medals.
Jonny Moseley, a freestyle skier who won a gold medal and charmed viewers with his California-dude demeanor during the 1998 Nagano games, surprised many in his sport when, after the Salt Lake Olympics, he became host of MTV's Real World/Road Rules Challenge. He later competed on Skating With the Stars and now hosts the reality competition American Ninja Warrior on NBC and G4.
Moseley says as a teenager, he knew television exposure was key -- to entice sponsors and for a second career.
Evan Morgenstein, chief executive of PMG Sports, which represents Olympians Nastia Lukin and Mark Spitz, puts it in more defiant terms. "They're forced to do this nonsense because of the inequitable distribution of wealth," he claims, noting that athletes are paid a relatively meager stipend, even though their efforts generate billions of dollars for the International Olympic Committee.
"They are indentured servants," he says, "and the fat cats at the IOC are ripping them off."
But it's not all about dollars and cents -- it's emotional, too, argues two-time Olympic gymnast and Yahoo! Sports analyst Shannon Miller. A stint on a show like Dancing With the Stars allows athletes to cope with the inevitable feeling of "what now?" that comes after the Olympics.