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Eastern States Offer Prize Money For Olympic Medals

Prague, July 15 (RFE/RL) -- Central European countries and the newly independent post-Soviet states are offering their sports stars high cash incentives to bring home Olympic medals.

Russian Olympic Committee head Vitaly Smirnov recently announced that Russia will pay 50,000 dollars to its athletes for gold medal victories at the games, 20,000 dollars for a silver medal, and 10,000 dollars for a bronze medal.

The amounts are far larger than any prize money offered by Moscow before. Russia's Olympic champions at the last Summer Games in Barcelona, Spain, received 15,000 dollar prizes.

It is a common practice worldwide for governments to offer prize money to Olympic athletes. But the sharp jump in the amounts Russia is offering this year is a sign of the particular importance it puts on winning in Atlanta. Many other eastern countries follow the same practice.

For many post-Soviet states, this year's competition marks the first time they participate in the Summer Games under their own national flags. Most of them competed in Barcelona four years ago as the United Team of the Commonwealth of Independent States. As independent states, they see Olympic victories both as a source of national pride and as a means of introducing themselves to the world public.

RFE/RL Georgian correspondent says that Tbilisi is offering medal winners the same prize amounts Moscow is offering its athletes. Both Belarus and Moldova are reported to be offering handsome rewards while Latvia, one of the few former Soviet republics which sent an independent team to Barcelona, is reportedly offering the highest prize money in Europe -- half a million dollars --to its first gold medalist.

The government of Kazakhstan offers 50,000 dollars, plus a car and an apartment, to its gold medal winners. It also is stepping up its chances to win by sending a team of 97 competitors to the Atlanta Olympics, almost five times larger than the team it contributed to the CIS for Barcelona.

Uzbekistan is sending 76 athletes to this year's summer games, 13 more than it sent to Barcelona. Kyrgyzstan is sending a contingent of 28 and Turkmenistan a team of nine. Even Tajikistan, which has been embroiled in a civil war for much of the time since it became independent from the Soviet Union, will send nine athletes.

Central and Eastern European nations are equally eager to demonstrate their athletic prowess at the Atlanta Games. Many enjoyed that reputation throughout the communist era, when the state spent heavily on sports. But in recent years Olympic medals have become rarer as state spending has been cut with the transformation to a market economy.

Poland is offering prize money of 22,000 dollars plus a small Fiat car to gold-medal winners. Slovakia has raised the bidding higher by offering some 32,000 dollars to any of its gold medalists. The Czech Republic offers about 37,000 dollars for the gold medal, about 14,000 for the silver medal and about 10,000 dollars for the bronze one.

But one post-communist country is happy just to be able to compete in the Summer Olympics at all, whether it wins medals or not. This year Albania will be competing in the international games for only the third time in its history as it sends a team of just one athlete qualified to participate.

Albanian athletes first joined the Olympics in 1972 in Munich but immediately afterwards were forbidden by the country's isolationist communist leader Enver Hoxha from ever participating again. The country finally made its return to the world's Olympic stage just four years ago.