- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2004

ATHENS — There’s less than $100 worth of gold in the most coveted of Olympic medals, but winning one can mean hitting the jackpot — especially for athletes from developing countries.

Romanian gold medalists will receive tax-free bonuses of $50,000 — twice what U.S. champions will get. Iraq’s new government has pledged $25,000 per gold. And Kenya’s winners will get flat-screen TVs and washing machines along with cash.

Governments, national Olympic committees and corporations have teamed up to ensure the spoils of victory are far more than chump change.

It’s an ancient tradition of the Games. Beginning around 500B.C., Olympic victors were paid 500 drachma — a fortune at a time when a sheep cost one drachma coin — and enjoyed free meals and front-row theater seats for the rest of their days.

Modern athletes and coaches, though, have mixed feelings about the Olympic pots of gold.

Romania’s champion women gymnasts, who won the team gold, will receive two cars, a free college education and a lifetime of rent courtesy of the government along with their hefty $50,000 bonuses. In a country where the average monthly take-home pay is just $170, that’s wealth most Romanians can only dream of.

Octavian Belu, who coaches the women’s team, thinks big payoffs backfire because athletes tend to quit after their first Olympics. Most of his champions are in their late teens, and he’s frustrated that he has few repeat Olympians, such as 25-year-old Russian diva Svetlana Khorkina.

“They collect their rewards and they leave,” he said. “It’s a real problem for me.”

But Olympic payoffs are getting bigger, especially in the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, where nations are eager to win prestige.

Ukraine will double what it paid gold medalists at the 2000 Sydney Games. Victors will get $100,000 from the government, sweetened by free apartments in Kiev.

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who heads the country’s Olympic committee, said Ukraine “hopes to join the list of the 15 best countries on the medal chart” by winning at least five golds — a target it hit yesterday.

Bonuses of up to $250,000 may await Russia’s gold medalists. The government will pay them $50,000 tax free, but the Russian Olympic Committee is working to persuade companies to chip in extra bonuses of $100,000 for a gold and possibly $200,000 if Athens is the champion’s final Olympics. Russians who break a world record on their way to a gold medal get an extra $50,000.

The U.S. Olympic Committee is offering only $25,000 for golds, $15,000 for silvers and $10,000 for bronzes. USA Swimming says it will chip in another $25,000 for golds in the pool. In any case, the best-known and most telegenic American champions get lucrative product endorsements and appearance fees that are rare in the developing world.

However, it’s not always about the money,

Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh, considered the world’s strongest man after lifting the equivalent of three refrigerators to win gold in Sydney, also holds Greek citizenship. But when Greece offered him $20,000 a month to switch allegiances, he refused, saying he was committed to competing for his homeland.

When Thai weightlifter Udomporn Polsak won gold Sunday, Thailand’s deputy prime minister said he’d give her $24,000 of his own money, and several companies offered sponsorship deals. But her biggest tribute came when her father and grandfather pledged to take temporary vows as Buddhist monks to show their thanks.

Iraq’s Olympic committee, reinstated by the International Olympic Committee just six months ago, has promised $25,000 for gold medals, though it concedes it may need sponsors to come through with the cash. Iraq has 25 athletes in Athens, including an 18-man soccer team.

The Philippines, which never has won a gold medal, wants one so badly it’s offering a bonus of $125,000. But tiny Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, can only afford to ante up $10,000.

In many corners of the world, there’s a big drawback to the gold rush: When dreams of Olympic glory die, visions of Easy Street are dashed along with them.

Oana Petrovschi, a top Romanian gymnast who won the silver medal in the uneven bars at the 2002 world championships, had to quit the sport last year after suffering two herniated discs in training.

“Disappointing my parents was the most difficult part,” she told the Associated Press in a recent interview.

They had high hopes, she explained tearfully, that she would win a medal in Athens — and with it, lifelong financial security for the family.

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