Rich rewards await Chinese champions

LONDON Thu Aug 9, 2012 11:16am EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - China's Communist Party leaders won't just be showering their athletes with praise for bringing home an Olympic medal. Cold, hard cash will also rain down on the champions who bring glory to the homeland.

China's central government paid their athletes a 350,000 yuan ($54,900) bonus for winning gold at the Beijing Games, an increase of 150,000 yuan from Athens in 2004, and is expected to trump that for those who top the podium in London.

The national sports ministry has yet to say exactly how much will be given out, but denied local media reports of a 500,000 yuan bonanza.

Whatever the amount, it will be only a small fraction of the potential windfall for athletes given that their home provinces and towns also feel compelled to shell out.

"The rewards for the Beijing Games were particularly generous," Fan Ye, a former world champion gymnast and 2004 Olympian, told Reuters.

"Some athletes got 6-7 million yuan if they won two golds.

"The provinces always compete with each other. If Guangdong says it would give so much, Zhejiang would want to offer more as they think they're richer," the retired gymnast said, referring to two relatively affluent coastal provinces.

Like other countries' Olympic champions, Chinese athletes can expect to further feather their nests with new sponsorship deals with private companies.

But many will already have pocketed a small fortune from the state for bringing prestige to their home towns and provinces.

PROVINCIAL WINDFALL

Northern Shaanxi province, the home of China's World Heritage-listed 'Terracotta Warriors', has promised their athletes 600,000 yuan for every gold they bring back from London, state media reported in June.

Two-time Olympic champion diver Qin Kai, who trained in Shaanxi's provincial capital Xian, can already expect to cash in after he won the men's three-meter synchronized springboard gold with partner Luo Yutong at the London Games.

He also stands to collect another 300,000 yuan for taking silver behind Russia's Ilya Zakharov in the individual three-meter springboard, according to the incentive scheme.

Yichang, a bustling port city on China's Yangtze river near the controversial Three Gorges dam, has tripled its bonuses from 100,000 to 300,000 yuan for Olympic champions.

That's good news for hometown girl Zhao Yunlei, who won a mixed doubles badminton gold at Wembley Arena last week and another in the women's doubles. Zhao can expect another hefty bonus from her native province of Hubei.

HISTORY

Communist China's practice of cash rewards for its athletes dates back to its return to the Olympic programme at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, after opting out for 32 years over the participation of Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty.

Sports authorities gave shooter Xu Haifeng 9,000 yuan for winning the 50 meter pistol gold in Los Angeles.

"That was a lot of money in those days," Xu told local media.

But the bonuses have their roots in China's tradition of holding up model citizens, which dates back to dynastic times, says Susan Brownell, an expert on Chinese sports at the University of Missouri and St Louis.

"That's something that's gone on for hundreds of years. They hold up an outstanding citizen and honor them for bringing prestige to the town or county.

"Women were honored for their virtue, along with poets and scholars and soldiers. Now successful athletes fit into this picture.

"It reflects well on the face of the provincial or local government to have produced a champion."

Xu Guoqi, a professor of the University of Hong Kong and author of "Olympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008", says the cash-giving culture shows a lack of imagination.

"Governments, organizations and people are cynical and less creative in figuring out other ways to show appreciation to good deeds," he said in an emailed response to Reuters.

"The only effective method is to provide financial rewards."

($1 = 6.3742 Chinese yuan)

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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