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Medals Become a Gold Mine for Chinese Athletes

September 01, 2004|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — National glory isn't the only thing being heaped on China's Olympic athletes, who are returning from the Athens Games with a record 32 gold medals.

Like some of their counterparts in the West, they're being showered with cash.

Gold medalists such as hurdler Liu Xiang stand to pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments, gifts and endorsements from a grateful government, an adoring public and a handful of companies eager to leave their mark on 1.3 billion potential customers in China.

Some say the financial outpouring underscores a collective sigh of relief that China has finally dispelled the idea that it is a nation of athletic wimps. For years, the country has lived with the taunts of Pacific Rim rivals, namely the Japanese, that Chinese are the "sickly men from East Asia."

"It has been such a humiliation to the country," said Xia Xueluan, a sociologist at Beijing University. "The Olympic Games prove that we are doing much better, and it is a healing of our national feelings."

The money -- which is split among the athlete, the coach and the government-run sports federation -- doesn't hurt, either, in a nation where the per-capita income is about $1,000.

The government is first in line to fill the pockets of the Olympic squad, which captured 63 medals, third behind the United States and Russia.

The National Sports Bureau will pay $24,400 for each of the 32 golds, up 25% from what it paid in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. It is paying $14,630 for each of the 17 silvers and $9,756 for the 14 bronzes captured in Athens, according to the state-run People's Daily newspaper.

Meanwhile, local governments and government sports bureaus will lavish bigger sums -- as well as fancy electronics, cars and houses -- on their hometown heroes.

Yunnan province, for example, will give $183,000 to favorite son Zhang Guozheng, who won his gold medal in weightlifting.

Then there are the private benefactors and businesspeople who are rushing to reward the athletes. A real estate company in her native Hebei province, outside of Beijing, announced that it would bestow a new house on diver Guo Jingjing after she took the gold last week, the People's Daily reported.

And two days after Zhu Qinan bagged his gold in the 10-meter air rifle event, businessmen in his native Zhejiang province on the southeast coast raised more than $39,000 as a gift of thanks.

The big winner, however, appears to be Liu, son of a Shanghai truck driver and homemaker. The 21-year-old hurdler, who became the first Chinese male athlete to win a gold medal in an Olympic track and field event, stands to collect an estimated $400,000 in government prizes.

But the Olympian will most likely earn his biggest money from the endorsements he signed with Nike and Coca-Cola before the Games, experts say. During the Olympic telecasts here, Liu appeared in Coca-Cola ads with fellow gold medalist Teng Haibin, a gymnast.

The hurdler was wearing Nike's logo on his team jersey and its shoes on his feet when he matched the world record of 12.91 seconds in his gold-medal race. His electrifying run had fans crying and shrieking with delight at television sets all over China early Saturday morning.

"That will be shown 10,000 times on the Chinese TV over the next four years. It's going to be etched into the minds of the Chinese," said Terry Rhoads, general manager of Shanghai-based Zou Marketing. "He's wearing the colors of China, red and gold, but he's also got emblazoned on his left chest a nice big swoosh."

That moment, said Rhoads, could prove to be the turning point in how companies sell themselves here. While they are accustomed to using sports stars in America, they've pretty much stuck to pop stars and movie personalities while advertising in the Chinese market, he said.

Now that China's going gaga over sports, more firms may be willing to use Olympic stars like Liu to hawk their products, other branding experts say.

"They're successful on a global scale, they've demonstrated their ability to compete and win," said Christopher Millward, a branding consultant in Beijing. "That's something many brands want to attach themselves to."

The gold rush continues for Liu. A furniture company and delivery service is clamoring for a sponsorship contract, said Robert Fan of Octagon in Beijing, a sports representation agency that is helping Liu arrange endorsement deals.

There are also reports that electronic equipment manufacturers are in the sponsorship hunt for Li Du, who won a women's gold medal in shooting. Guo and fellow diver Tian Liang, a Chinese heartthrob, have reportedly signed a contract with an Australian drink manufacturer for $1.2 million.

All of which raises a question that is familiar to sports fans everywhere: With so much money, can tattoos, temper tantrums and contract demands be far behind?

Fan, of Octagon, says he doesn't think the money will spoil the hometown athletes. China's best will remain "hard-working and loyal to the sport."

But Xia, the sociologist, isn't so sure. "It's too much for them to handle all at once," he said. "All these material attractions. I'm worried about whether they can stick to their goals and do their best. I'm afraid they're just going to do it for the money."


Bu Yang in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


In stories after September 1, Los Angeles Times style changed: Beijing University is called Peking University.

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