The minute Gordy Sheer heard recently that celebrity gossip site TMZ was launching a spinoff dedicated to the dirty laundry of sports, he sent a warning e-mail to USA Luge athletes.
"TMZ is a game changer," said Sheer, a 1998 Olympic silver medalist and marketing manager for the team. "In today's world, everyone has a video camera or a camera phone making them, in essence, a journalist. Even the most innocent thing - someone cuts in front of you at a bar and picks a fight - can end up for the world to see."
With the Winter Olympics set to begin Feb. 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia, the media spotlight is shifting to athletes who have toiled in obscurity for years. And the athletes, many of whom participate in competitions that are over in a day or two, will have time on their hands until the closing ceremony.
Agents, too, see the potential for trouble this year.
"I tell my athletes, 'You have to imagine that everything you do will wind up on TMZ or the front page of the New York Post or Facebook or YouTube,' " said Patrick Quinn, who has represented more than 20 Winter Olympians. "There is no place where you're going to go unnoticed. The stakes are high.' "
The photo of Michael Phelps holding a bong to his lips, published this time last year by a British tabloid and blasted around the Internet, wasn't the first time an Olympic athlete has been caught behaving badly. As a matter of fact, Phelps wasn't even the first gold-medal swimmer. Nude photos of France's Laure Manaudou went viral in 2007, which several Web sites speculated was the handiwork of a spurned lover.
But TMZ is a high-profile platform capable of driving the news, as evidenced by its relentless coverage of Tiger Woods.
"For the last 10 years, athletes have been under the microscope. Now, they're under an electron microscope," said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising. "TMZ has proven they can break stories and they pay."
TMZ, which confirmed the new venture to The New York Times in December, did not respond to requests for comment.
If previous Winter Games are an indication, U.S. officials have plenty of reason to worry.
In 1998, the men's hockey team - all NHL players - trashed rooms at the Olympic Village after an early exit from competition. In 2006, aerials skier Jeret "Speedy" Peterson was bounced from the Olympic Village and sent home after a night of partying ended with him getting into a fistfight with one of his friends. That year, skier Bode Miller was photographed wearing a bleached-blonde Playboy model, holding a drink and waving to the camera with just one finger. "I got to party and socialize at the Olympic level," Miller said at the time.
Even luge offered thrills beyond its feet-first, lightning-fast slide on ice when just before the 2006 Games in Turin, seemingly nude female athletes promoting a drinking game posed with a red sled between them and the camera lens.
"For the most part, these are good people. But anyone can make a mistake," Sheer said.
Scottie Bibb, spokeswoman for US Figure Skating, said she monitors the personal Web sites of athletes and "once in a blue moon," will ask that something - usually a party photo - be taken down. The skaters get media training each June at Champs Camp and will get a refresher course at U.S. Nationals, which conclude this weekend.
Evan Morgenstein, who has been an agent for 13 years, said figure skaters and elite skiers are the exception. Most amateur athletes are unused to the spotlight, don't have bodyguards and are less wary than professionals.
"They're not babes in the woods. But it becomes a matter of 'Why would anyone pay attention to me when no one has paid attention to me for the previous three years?' " Morgenstein said. "It's very, very dangerous."
Agents and marketing experts say advertisers take a chance when they tie their product to the once-every-four-years performance of an athlete. The athlete could lose or not qualify or melt down. The specter of an embarrassing incident outside competition raises the stakes higher.
"As soon as TMZ launched the new site, that should have sent a shudder down the hallways of every corporation who uses athletes and every athlete who ever wanted to get famous," Morgenstein said.
Dorfman said athletes in sports such as snowboarding might gain popularity by being a little rogue. And some obscure winter sports might benefit from a little notoriety. Figure skating became the Winter Games darling in 1994, the year of Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan.
But corporations, he said, are starting to rethink the single-athlete spokesperson in favor of sponsoring events or entire teams.
Of course, it's not as if TMZ is filling a void. Deadspin, a site launched in 2005, often runs rumors about the lives of athletes. In a recent post, editor A.J. Daulerio offered a "bring it on" challenge: "Does this mean that every single person on the planet with raunchy photos of athletes drinking or sliming women will now run over to TMZ first because they'll offer some payment for these types of photos? Yikes ... But remember - we pay, too. ... It's only happened once before, but if I have to start being more aggressive about using this burlap sack of scuzz money I have sitting on my desk, then so be it."
Morgenstein worries about that kind of competition, asking: What if an athlete's agent manufactures a story?
"It's just theater, isn't it?" Morgenstein asked.
"People will do just about anything. It's not sports, it's voyeurism. It's a version of 'Girls Gone Wild.' "