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Cashing out gold medals

THE WORLD / BEIJING 2008

China lavishes vast sums on winning athletes

August 23, 2008|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — As China piles up the Olympic gold medals, it is justifiably proud of its accomplishments. National glory is great.

But for Chinese athletes who have slaved in sports camps for most of their lives, the monetary payoff isn't so bad either.

Ka-ching.

Communism? What's that? China's medal winners will be the best-rewarded in the history of Chinese sports as celebrity culture and commercialization strengthen their grip here.

Much like other countries, China has embraced the practice of rewarding its most successful Olympians beyond the medal stand. Every Chinese athlete who brings home gold is guaranteed at least $51,500 from the central government, nearly double what their counterparts received at the 2004 Games. And by the way, that's all tax-free.

The athletes also stand to enjoy substantial paydays from provincial and local governments bursting with pride over their native sons and daughters. Often off the books, these sums can dwarf the proceeds from Beijing.

Various corporations have also jumped into the act, including Beijing-based Yanjing Beer Co. It's offering $146,000 for each gold medalist in the 32 water sports events, $70,000 for each silver and $28,000 for each bronze.

That's a great leap forward compared with a few decades ago when Chinese athletes were expected to be content with their daily wages and their patriotism. China's first gold medalist, the self-trained Xu Haifeng, who won in the 50-meter pistol in Los Angeles in 1984, was given a $2,600 bonus.

"In the old days, they just gave you a plaque," said Wei Hanfeng, executive editor of Sports Illustrated's Chinese edition. "Now Chinese gold medalists walk away with more than many athletes in developed countries."

Still not satisfied? How about the kilogram (2.2 pounds) of gold, worth about $29,000, and $80,000 in cash offered by the Huo Yingdong Education Foundation, which might assuage winners who discover their gold medal is actually gold-plated.

Add it up and Chinese gold medal winners can expect to pocket an estimated $300,000 on average. That amounts to more than 100 years' wages for the average Chinese city dweller and 300 years' for rural residents.

American gold medalists, by comparison, receive about $25,000 from the U.S. Olympic Committee. Those who become media darlings can make major bucks, of course.

Prohibitions against paying Olympic athletes were lifted in the 1980s by the International Olympic Committee.

As in the U.S., the most charismatic Chinese medalists vie for corporate sponsorship.

Despite a leg injury, hurdler and 2004 gold medalist Liu Xiang is expected to keep most of his endorsement deals -- which amounted to more than $20 million last year -- from Cadillac, Coca-Cola, Nike and more than a dozen Chinese firms.

And if you're the very first Chinese gold medalist at the Games, considered a sign of good luck in Chinese culture, the payoff could be huge.

That honor this time went to female weightlifter Chen Xiexia. The National Sports Administration, local government and the foundation are each expected to give her $150,000, and sponsors are expected to provide $1 million more, plus houses and cars.

Winners may also receive apartments, government jobs, cars and instant admission to university. A lifetime pension from the central government is also under consideration.

Last week, when Qiu Jian unexpectedly won a gold medal in the men's 50-meter rifle competition, his wife exclaimed, "We can pay our mortgage!"

Many athletes insist all that money won't erode their discipline.

"The money is a bonus," said Zhang Guozheng, a 2004 gold medal winner in weightlifting. "But it's the spirit and prestige that matter."

Whatever the incentive, other nations this year have also shown a willingness to increase the prizes available to successful athletes. At the start of the Games, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin doubled rewards to $150,000, $90,000 and $60,000 for his nation's gold, silver and bronze winners, respectively.

In Germany, gold medalists are entitled to 50 liters of beer a month, while in Belarus gold winners get, among other things, a lifetime's worth of sausages.

India, which like China has more than a billion people, has much less in the way of gold medals. The country is offering its first solo Olympic gold medal winner, shooter Abhinav Bindra, about $115,000, a doubling of his pension and a lifetime go-anywhere free first-class train pass. State governments have jumped in with cash rewards too, bringing the total to nearly $1 million, according to news reports. None of it will be taxed.

Other nations name streets after their winners, exempt them from military service and issue stamps in their honor.

Mongolia last week gave its first-ever gold medalist, judo star Tuvshinbayar Naidan, the telephone number 9999-9999. That's considered a lucky number on the steppe. North Korea does it the way China used to. No big monetary reward, but the knowledge that you're due for special medals, such as the "Hard-working Hero" award.

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