China's system of rewarding medal winners financially was just getting started in the mid-1980s when Susan Brownell competed in the heptathlon as a student at Beijing Sports University. But Chinese academics were already considering how best to motivate athletes, said Brownell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who is studying the Games.
Many of today's rewards follow on their research. Ranked in order of importance, the incentives were: money and bonuses; the chance to go to university; the chance to eat well, still a factor in some rural areas; and patriotism.
"Basically it's me first, country second, which isn't really that different anywhere," she said. "Already at that time, they thought money was pretty important and were pretty jaded about patriotism."
The windfall can leave young athletes with a new lilt to their step. Table tennis athlete Zhang Yining often told her coach during her years of training about how she envied people who owned a car. But, in a country where coaches hold great sway over athletes, hers, Li Sun, told her repeatedly not to even think about it.
That all changed when she won gold at the Athens Games.
"Take a gold medal in the Olympics and you can buy anything you want without my permission, even an airplane," he told her.
Though star athletes garner the spotlight, a host of coaches, bureaucrats and trainers in China's elite state sports system also get bonuses proportionate to the gold medal winner.
Once the sponsorship contracts start rolling in, athletes are often obliged to give a portion back to the sports federation that "created" them.
"Everyone gets part of this," said Tom McCarthy, chairman of the Beijing International Group, who has been involved with sports in China for two decades. "Some say they're stealing that money. But it doesn't go to individuals. It goes into the federation to fuel programs."