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Olympics 2004: For Some Athletes, Behind The Medals Lies Real Gold

Dealing with the enormous amount of money the Olympics generates is a major headache for the games' organizers. The problem of ensuring that thousands of millions of dollars in television money, plus the millions donated by corporate sponsors and national sports programs, makes its way to deserving athletes -- and not to corrupt bureaucrats -- has plagued the games for decades. The International Olympic Commission (IOC), which organizes the games, was forced to implement reforms following bribery scandals involving former host cities Salt Lake City and Sydney. In addition, as a way of making money available directly to the athletes, many countries in recent years have begun paying cash bonuses to their nationals who win medals.

Prague, 6 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Athletes from tiny Lithuania will have it pretty good at the Olympic Games later this month in Athens.

For each gold medal they win, they'll get a special cash bonus of more than $100,000 -- paid by the Lithuanian government.

And that doesn't even count the luxury automobile they will receive, as Vytas Zubernis, the secretary-general of the Lithuanian Olympic Committee, tells RFE/RL.

"For [athletes who win] the gold medal, [they will get] about $125,000 -- for the gold medal -- [paid by] the government. And from the Olympic Committee, the [winning] athlete gets a car -- a BMW," Zubernis says.

That compares favorably to traditional sports powerhouses like the United States and Russia. Victorious U.S. athletes, for example, will get just $25,000, paid by the U.S. Olympic Committee. The Russian government will pay $50,000 for each Russian gold.

A list of countries that pay cash bonuses for medals shows a similar pattern. Smaller and poorer countries often pay large bonuses, while bigger and richer countries pay relatively paltry ones.

Organizers say there's a good reason for the discrepancy. In smaller countries like Lithuania, athletes have fewer sources of income to afford them time and opportunity to train. In the bigger and richer countries, athletes often enjoy subsidized training or can even parlay their winnings into lucrative sponsorships or product endorsements.

Zubernis says in Lithuania, where private sponsors are rare and the state can only cover about half of an athlete's expenses, it's an important contribution:

"We can say it's like some contribution for them because for our athletes it's not enough money what the Lithuanian government or Olympic Committee or federations [gives]," Zubernis says.

The situation is similar in neighboring Belarus. Lalita Yauhleuskaya won a bronze medal in the women's 25-meter pistol competition. Speaking through her husband Sergei, she said the money she made was "pretty good."

"We [receive] gifts for the European championships, world championships and Olympic Games -- for the first, second and third places. And it's really good money. For the last games in 2000, it was $65,000 for a gold medal, $42,000 for a [silver medal] and $22,000 for a bronze medal," Sergei says.

Yauhleuskaya's husband explains that in Belarus, athletes are paid a state wage -- much like any other state worker. It's enough to live on, but not much more:

"If you are competing at a level like my wife, it will [be as if you have a] job. The government will pay a salary to you every month. And your job is to go to training one or two times a day. It depends on what your plan is and what your competition is. And if you go to an [international] competition, the government pays everything," Sergei says.

Yauhleuskaya has since left Belarus to live in Australia, where the funding and training facilities are better. In Athens, she'll compete as a member of the Australian shooting team.

The bonus system would appear to be a far cry from the Olympic ideal of excellence in sport for its own sake. Until the mid-1980s, paid athletes were forbidden from participating in the games, but that rule was scrapped for the 1988 Seoul Games after it became impossible to enforce. The rule change, in effect, allowed countries to reward gold medals with real gold -- legalizing a long-standing informal practice of giving top athletes apartments, cars, and special privileges.

Zubernis says, in spite of the bonus, the Olympic ideal still comes first. He denies that his athletes are simply competing for money, saying the opportunity to participate in the games itself counts most.

"No, no, no! The Olympic Games [are the] Olympic Games. [About the money,] what they are getting, it's like some kind of contribution for them [to be able to train]. The Olympic ideal is first!" Zubernis says.

But there are signs the bonus system is vulnerable to abuse.

In Kazakhstan, where gold-medal athletes can earn as much as $100,000 or more in bonuses, the winners say there's often pressure to share the money with trainers and supporters -- some possibly backed by the mafia. If they don't, the athletes say, the consequences could be grave.

Kazakh Olympic boxing champion Bekzat Sattarkhanov died in a car accident on New Year's Eve 2000, just months after defeating U.S. boxer Ricardo Juarez to win the gold medal at the Sydney Games. Two passengers survived, but the details surrounding the accident were never made public. His death is one of a number of mysterious deaths or beatings the past couple of years involving Kazakh athletes and trainers.

At the time it was widely speculated that Sattarkhanov had refused to share his winnings. His father, Seilkhan, says he still wonders whether money played a role in his son's untimely death:

"There is doubt in my heart [about my son's death]. It's forbidden to speak about his death openly. Who knows -- it might have been his fate. Nobody witnessed the accident, and even if somebody saw it they kept quiet. Nowadays, I'm afraid the accident is almost forgotten. Besides [the death of my son] Bekzat there were other mysterious deaths. Who cares about them?" Sattarkhanov says.

For his part, Zubernis says nothing like that could ever happen in his country. He says in Lithuania -- as in many other countries -- trainers and backers receive a separate, though smaller, cash bonus.

"For the trainers, they are also getting money, some money. Of course, it's less, but also from the Lithuanian government -- from the sports department," Zubernis says.

(RFE/RL's Belarus and Kazakh services contributed to this report)

More stories about the Olympics from RFE/RL:

Muslim Women Athletes Move Ahead, But Don't Leave Faith Behind

After Medal-Winning Glory, What Next For Former Soviet Athletes?

Despite Problems, Olympic Ideals Endure

Games Struggle For Spotlight, But Prestige Remains
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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.