BEIJING — If you spend any time in Beijing, you'll feel you are being watched.

No, I'm not talking about government surveillance. I'm talking about Yao Ming, the 7-foot-6 Chinese basketball player who carries the hopes of his nation into this summer's Olympic Games.

It is impossible to escape Yao's constant gaze.

His smiling face greets you in large advertisements for a credit card company as you enter and leave the city's airport. In your hotel room, he appears on television to promote a brand of exclusive sports watches. Moments later, there he is again in a public service announcement urging a positive attitude toward the upcoming Games.

That's not to say actors Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two of China's other superstar commercial endorsers, don't have high visibility here. But Yao dominates advertising this year.

Yao promises a full recovery from a stress fracture in his left foot in time for the Olympics, good news for his lucrative sponsor, Adidas AG. Liu Xiang, China's popular Olympic gold medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, endorses archrival Nike Inc.

Olympic Games in foreign locales often inspire the public toward fitness, travel and leisure, which aids the stock of public companies in those industries. This year, however, political and human rights issues are swirling around the Beijing Games, while a sagging U.S. economy could curtail the travel plans of many Americans.

Perhaps this gloom has unfairly punished the stock prices of many strong companies with excellent long-term prospects. Bargain hunters may wind up the winners.

"Whether they become must-see TV or not, I think the Olympics or anything else that gives people a little motivation to be more active will help the fitness industry," said Thomas Shaw, analyst with Stifel Nicolaus in Baltimore.

Asia is the growth region that athletic apparel and equipment companies are counting on. For example, sales in Nike's Asia Pacific region jumped 27 percent in its recent quarter, boosted by the decline of the U.S. dollar. China is a prime target.

"Nike is doing really well, with especially good numbers in international markets such as Asia, while the U.S. is struggling," said Mark Greenberg, portfolio manager of the $712 million AIM Leisure Fund (ILSAX), down 6 percent this year with five-year annualized return of 11 percent. "That proves that if you are constantly coming out with attractively styled products, people will like them."

Nike (NKE), its stock up 4 percent in 2008, spends nearly $2 billion annually on advertising and endorsement contracts. It is expected to benefit from its acquisition of Umbro, a powerhouse in international soccer apparel. Virtually all Nike merchandise comes from outside the U.S., and expiration of some U.S. quotas on Chinese apparel imports will give it even greater manufacturing flexibility.

On the other hand, Greenberg doesn't recommend Callaway Golf Co. (ELY), whose stock is still selling at the price it was years ago, because "you don't need new golf clubs every year and the number of rounds being played has fallen." Stay with design-oriented firms that set trends, he said.

Health clubs were brawny financial performers throughout the past decade, boosted by 5 percent annual membership growth and 8 percent annual revenue increases, Shaw said. Lately the economy has sapped their strength.

Stock of Life Time Fitness Inc. (LTM), with 70 resort-like fitness centers in 16 states and a large Midwestern presence, is down 36 percent this year. Stock in Town Sports International Holdings Inc. (CLUB), with 161 clubs in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., is down 25 percent.

"These companies are extremely cheap from a valuation standpoint and a little more resistant to the economy than people give them credit for," Shaw said. "Any time you have a high-multiple stock and there is a change of tone — such as when Life Time Fitness acknowledged a slowness in new members coming in — it hits the stock hard."

Cybex International Inc. (CYBI), whose stock is down 14 percent this year, is another Shaw favorite. He likes the fact Cybex has 90 percent of its strength and exercise equipment in commercial outlets such as fitness clubs rather than in homes, unlike some of its competitors.

"People definitely aren't looking to buy treadmills or weights to put in their houses," Shaw said. "The weak U.S. dollar should also make Cybex more competitive from an international standpoint, so I see this as a cheap stock with great possibilities."

Rather than booking adventures spurred by the romance of Beijing, consumers might turn into total tightwads this summer on fears about the economy. That potential, valid or not, has taken its toll on the stock of many leisure firms.

Walt Disney Co. (DIS), which generally sells at a premium, is down 2 percent this year, and Greenberg considers that a terrific discount for investors. It remains an entertainment and leisure juggernaut with theme parks, famous characters, licensing, films and television properties.

"There is a high relationship between home sales and unit sales of boats, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles," said Tim Conder, leisure industry analyst for A.G. Edwards in St. Louis. "However, we do like the stock of cruise companies Carnival Corp. (CCL) and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCL) because people trying to stretch their vacation money will choose value-related alternatives."


Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, P.O. Box 874702, Tempe, Ariz. 85287-4702, or by e-mail at [email protected]