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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

And now to the least likely sponsorship in Olympic sports: Tonight, the comedian Stephen Colbert plans to again feature the U.S. speedskating team on his TV show. Colbert decided to sponsor the team after it lost a major corporate backer to bankruptcy.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports on this mix of comedy and competition.

HOWARD BERKES: The bankrupt bank left a $300,000 hole in U.S. Speedskating's ice just as the big push to next month's Olympics began. Then came the phone call from New York and the November 2nd cablecast of "The Colbert Report."

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")

Mr. STEPHEN COLBERT (Host, "The Colbert Report"): OK, Bob. Bob, is this possible, can the Colbert Nation sponsor U.S. Speedskating?

Mr. BOB CROWLEY (CEO, U.S. Speedskating): Yes, absolutely.

Mr. COLBERT: Where do I sign?

Mr. CROWLEY: Right here.

BERKES: That was U.S. Speedskating CEO Bob Crowley getting Stephen Colbert's signature on the sponsorship papers.

Mr. CROWLEY: Our budget would've had to have been cut in a number of key areas. For U.S. Speedskating, this has been a lifesaver - literally. BERKES: Now, Stephen Colbert didn't put up any of his own money. Instead, he begged his viewers to send in checks.

Mr. COLBERT: We have got to step up and make sure that it is America's 38-inch thighs on that metal platform.

BERKES: Speedskating is now part of Colbert's blustering comic send-ups of real, bloviating talk show hosts. Here he is with short track medal prospect Katherine Reutter.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")

Mr. COLBERT: Let's trash talk the Summer Games for just a second.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KATHERINE REUTTER (U.S. Speedskater): Let's do it. OK.

Mr. COLBERT: OK? Guys like Michael Phelps, how easy is it to swim through water? You run on top of water with samurai swords strapped to your feet.

Ms. REUTTER: I thank you. Thank you for saying that.

Mr. COLBERT: Doesn't that seem harder?

Ms. REUTTER: Definitely.

BERKES: Reutter is a very serious, hard-training skater who can describe in exquisite detail the technical, physical and psychological challenges of her sport.

Ms. REUTTER: I always want to present myself as a poised athlete, someone who is intelligent and hard-working. And I want for people to be able to relate to me in that way.

BERKES: Colbert did ask Reutter about her training regimen. And then she asked him to sign his name on her billboard thighs, as she freely calls them. Stunts like that make some wonder whether skaters lose their dignity with the Colbert connection.

Long-track star Shani Davis called Colbert a jerk.

Tripp Mickle is the Olympic beat writer for Sports Business Journal.

Mr. TRIPP MICKLE (Writer, Sports Business Journal): You've got to be wary of partnering with people who might make these sports sticky almost, you know, just something that they aren't, and make them too much about a joke and not about what they really are.

BERKES: And when Sports Illustrated put a speedskater on its cover, it wasn't Katherine Reutter. It was Stephen Colbert, head to toe in a skintight, Team USA racing suit. But Mickle believes Colbert has not crossed the line so far, and Reutter agrees.

Ms. REUTTER: At the very beginning, we were all a little worried that like, maybe he'd poke fun at us. We didn't want our life dream to be turned into something that got poked fun at on Comedy Central. But that has never happened. Like, I feel like I have more support and more people believe in me because of this show.

BERKES: The sponsorship has had its challenges. At first, Colbert wanted his face on those billboard thighs. But given their varied dimensions and the flexed material, well, he'd have cheeks stretched wide like silly putty. So he went for the Colbert Nation logo instead.

And then there's the nasty diss from Shani David.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Colbert Report")

Mr. COLBERT: I challenge you to a speedskating race any rink, any time, any distance - as long as I get a thousand-meter head start.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLBERT: If I win, I get your spot on the U.S. Olympic team. But if you win, you get an autographed copy of my Sports Illustrated cover.

BERKES: Colbert and Davis did race, and the results are shown on tonight's show. Close to 10,000 Colbert viewers sent in more than $300,000, making up for the bankrupt bank. But this is a one-time-only deal. U.S. Speedskating still has to find a real sponsor with a long-term commitment. There's hope that the "Colbert Report's" exposure will make that easier.

Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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