'Going for the gold' means more than just aiming for medals

News-DemocratFebruary 12, 2014 

On the news the other morning, they said that the U.S. government pays cash to medal winners in the Olympics. How much do they get? And how do we compare to other countries, who they said also pay their athletes?

-- Brian Rolerkite, of Red Bud

When it comes to Olympics competition, "going for the gold" means far more than just aiming for that first-place medal. In fact, as you'll see, the actual value of those medals pales in comparison to the monetary prizes winners walk away with.

Members of Team USA, for example, can skate and schuss their way to $25,000 for a gold medal, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze. (However, before anyone shoots off a nasty letter to their congressmen, these monetary prizes are awarded by the U.S. Olympic Committee, not the federal government, so your great-grandchildren won't be paying for them.)

This, of course, is a dramatic change from 1912, when Jim Thorpe, the great Native American athlete, was stripped of two gold medals because he had been paid for playing semipro baseball in 1909. Back then, athletes had to sign an oath that they had never accepted money in prizes or endorsements.

But those lines began to blur in the '60s and '70s when Communist countries saw the prestige value of those medals. While Western athletes scraped by as best they could, the Eastern bloc subsidized training and travel. However, because it was government money, the athletes weren't professionals, they claimed.

As recently as 1972, Austrian skier Karl Schranz was banned from competing in the Winter Olympics because he had accepted endorsements from ski sponsors. But finally in 1981, the International Olympic Committee put an end to the sham and removed the word "amateur" from its charter.

Then, starting in 1996, it began to reward medal winners. As a result, at the 2004 Summer Olympics alone, superstar swimmer Michael Phelps went to the bank with $170,000 for his six golds and two bronzes, another $200,000 from USA Swimming -- and millions in endorsements.

But compared to a few other countries, U.S. athletes still must feel like paupers. Singapore reportedly pays $810,000 for a gold should any of its athletes win one. Kazakhstan coughs up $250,000 as well as $150,000 for silver and $75,000 for bronze. Other generous benefactors include Italy ($182,000) and Russia ($135,000, $81,600, $54,400).

Space precludes a complete list, but it includes France ($65,000), China ($55,000 plus cars, apartments and houses), South Africa ($55,000), Mexico ($37,000) and Ghana ($20,000).

Such prizes, by the way, are considered taxable, although, out of national pride, there have been efforts in Congress to make them tax-exempt.

As mentioned before, the huge medal itself is a trifle, monetarily speaking, compared to these cash prizes. Sure, the gold medal at Sochi weighs nearly a pound (14.533 ounces), but it turns out that the medallion is 93 percent silver, 5.66 percent copper -- and only 1.34 percent gold.

So even when you figure in the two-tenths ounce of gold at current precious metals prices, it comes out to a not-terribly-impressive $540. (If it really were a solid-gold medal, you'd be talking upwards of $19,000.)

Even so, that's the only treasure some athletes receive for their effort. Remaining pure to the original Olympic spirit, such countries as Great Britain and Norway reportedly do not offer cash prizes to their athletes.

"We believe that the drive, dedication, and commitment is motivated first and foremost by the desire to represent their country to the best of their ability," a British official was quoted as saying.

Today's trivia

Who is the most decorated Winter Olympic athlete of all time?

Answer to Wednesday's trivia: In 1974, Anders Haugen, an American ski jumper, was finally awarded his bronze medal at the age of 83. Turns out he had placed third in the individual large hill at the very first Winter Olympics in 1924, but a scoring error wasn't found until 50 years later. (His bronze had been awarded to Norwegian Thorleif Haug, who had also won three golds.) If you're wondering about the oldest active athlete to win a medal, it was 58-year-old Carl August Kronlund, who won a silver in 1924 as part of the Swedish curling team, according to the International Olympic Committee. American figure skater Tara Lapinski remains the youngest athlete to win a gold medal. In 1998 when she was just 15 years and 255 days old, Lapinski was two months younger than Sonja Henie was when Henie won in 1928.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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