BEIJING - How much is an Olympic gold medal worth? For China’s newest sports stars, fresh from triumph in Athens and idolized by a sports-crazy public, the country’s ongoing rush to capitalism means they can cash in like never before.
China, in its best Olympic showing, won 32 gold medals at the Athens Games, second only to the United States. The surprise result earned high praise from China’s government, which called on all Chinese to learn from the athletes.
“The excellent performance by China’s athletes again shows the spirit of the Chinese nation’s unremitting efforts to improve itself,” the government said in a message broadcast repeatedly on state-run television.
“The motherland is proud of you, and the people are proud of you.”
Yet even as China’s communist rulers cast the Olympians as something akin to the selfless “model workers” of its proletariat past, the country’s market-oriented present means athletes are bound to profit heartily from their newfound hero status.
“If nothing else, 2008 has created an opportunity that is frankly unprecedented,” said Christopher Millward, chief executive of Millward Consultants in Beijing. “The inherent publicity of the games has created that,” he said, pointing to the endless cheerleading by China’s completely state-controlled media.
For the stars of Athens, the central government has promised prizes of up to $24,000 for Olympic medalists, and individual provinces also plan to rain cash on their local stars, the official People’s Daily newspaper said in its online edition.
Yunnan, for example, will give weightlifter Zhang Guozheng $180,000 for being the first from the province to capture Olympic gold.
Still to come are the commercial endorsements, speaking engagements and free merchandise that are par for the course in developed nations. Chinese motorcycle makers, property developers and others already have announced gifts of their own, no strings attached.
Hurdling star Liu Xiang stands to earn the most of all, after becoming the first Chinese man to win gold at an Olympic track event. He was awarded the honor of carrying China’s flag at the close of the Athens Games, after finishing first in the 110-meter hurdles by matching the world record time of 12.91 seconds.
Already, Liu can be seen leaping from Nike sneaker ads. The People’s Daily said Liu is set to collect $400,000 just in government prizes. His commercial earnings could be several times that.
There is a flip side, however. Personal scandals can sour an athlete’s earning power, and in China that can include running afoul of the government line.
“Universally, heroes of any nationality are human, too,” Millward said.
Chinese sports officials criticized basketball star Yao Ming for expressing disappointment with the team’s loss in its debut game, saying he was “destroying the unity of the team.”
The implication was that the Houston Rockets center had become too much of an individual, even too American, Millward said.
“The lines are being drawn,” he added.
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