Why the Olympic champion's marijuana use is unlikely to damage his endorsement deals with Kellogs, Speedo, and other top brands

By Chris Nashawaty
Updated February 06, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

Finally, we may know the secret to how he maintains that ungodly 12,000-calorie-per-day diet. Last week, a photo surfaced of Olympic champion Michael Phelps doing a bong hit at a Nov. 6 party thrown on the University of South Carolina campus. Usually, it isn’t news when a young man is caught experimenting with marijuana, but there are a lot of reputations riding on this particular 23-year-old, who has inked endorsement deals with PG-rated brands like Kellogg’s, Visa, AT&T, Speedo, and PowerBar. (Some have estimated that his earnings as a shill could ultimately net Phelps $100 million.) The scandalette also calls into question whether the swimming sensation — who had already taken heat in the blogosphere for his party-boy antics — has suddenly put his fledgling careers in both advertising and show business at risk. (To be fair, Phelps’ two big post-Olympic TV appearances were on the decidedly stoner-friendly Entourage and Saturday Night Live.) Phelps, smartly, admitted that the pictures were real, and immediately issued an apology. Officials in South Carolina have said they are considering pressing charges against Phelps, but so far his corporate sponsors have been surprisingly cool about the incident — not one has dropped him. Why? Says one agent who specializes in celebrity endorsements, ”He’s 23, he admitted it, it was the off-season, and it wasn’t steroids. I think it’s going to go away. When your president admits to smoking pot, you’re sort of desensitized to the whole issue.” — With reporting by Whitney Pastorek