Faster, Stronger, Richer
A staggering sum of life-changing bonuses helped spur China to the top of the gold medal count
When Yu Fen, China's venerated diving coach, first met Wang Ruoxue four years ago, she found the then-12-year-old former gymnast a highly promising prospect. There was just one problem. "I told her that she should change her name, because ruo sounds like the Chinese word for 'weak,' " Yu said. "So I changed her name to Wang Xin."
Give Yu credit -- or cash or a check. Xin can mean gold in the sense of either first-place finishes or riches, but that kind of distinction was all but erased in China for the 2008 Games. When Wang lived up to the name on Aug. 12, partnering with Chen Ruolin to win the 10-meter synchronized diving final, she tapped into what is expected to be an unprecedented bonanza for all of China's gold medalists. And in a country where the average worker earns less than $2,400 a year, the impact on first-time champs like the 16-year-old Wang could prove galvanic.
Consider: China Daily, the national English-language newspaper, estimated that a gold medal would be worth an average of 1.5 million yuan ($219,000) in bonuses and endorsement income to Chinese athletes, with talk of tax exemptions for Olympic-generated income and possible lifetime pensions. Estimates for Chen Xiexia, the 48-kg weightlifter who won China's first gold medal in Beijing, range anywhere from $700,000 to $1.4 million.
The 25-year-old Chen Xiexia hails from the poorest village, Da'ao, in the poorest county, Ganlan, in the remote rural district of Panyu. Her father, Xiquan, supported a family of five on the equivalent of $570 a year he made as a banana farmer. He had to borrow money to keep his daughter enrolled in the local sports school. "I didn't think about what would happen to her," Xiquan said of his ambitions for her, Olympic or otherwise. "I had no expectations."
The nation, though, expected its athletes to roll through much of the competition in its home Games -- and indeed they finished first with 51 gold medals, and second in total medals, with 100 to the U.S.'s 110 -- and marketers tried mightily to smoke out the next star with publicity-generating prizes. One Chinese liquor company promised a $1.4 million reward to the nation's shooting team if one of its marksmen won the Olympics' first title. None did. Still, the lone Chinese fencer to win gold, Zhong Man, walked away with a $44,000 bonus from a Hong Kong bank, and like all China's winners, he collected $80,000 and a kilogram of gold awarded by a Hong Kong foundation. China's sports administration, meanwhile, raised its bonus for a gold medal from $29,266 in 2004 to $36,447 -- trumping the USOC's $25,000 prize -- and proved yet again that when it comes to pure capitalism, no one can compete with a bunch of lapsed Communists.
We're seeing the rise of individualism in this society," says Lin Gu, a Beijing-based writer and fellow at the Asia Society. "In the old China we used to have a saying, Friendship first, competition second.... To win a gold medal was not for the individual but for the collective glory of the whole country. But now for the athlete there's more motivation: If you win, money is part of the package."
And far from causing resentment, the accounts of athletes cashing in seem to hold endless fascination for the average fan. "Right now the Chinese want to have more of such stories -- fame, money, what have you," Lin says. "That tells you who the real heroes are in society, those who have money or power."
Still, in some ways the athletes were the last to know. They've been so long in the bubble of training and competition, removed from families and isolated from the real world, that the coming windfall seemed a bit unreal. "I didn't think how it would improve my family's life," said Wang, whose family was getting by on $150 a month when her parents turned her over to Coach Yu. "It should."
Seventeen-year-old weightlifter Long Qingquan is set to receive about $150,000 for becoming the first athlete from Hunan province ever to win a gold medal. His parents were farmers making $1,500 a year when they borrowed $5,700 in the late 1990s to send him to a distant sports school. Qingquan was 10. "We are peasants," said his 47-year-old father, Guangwu. "So he can only do weightlifting to be somebody."
Qingquan hasn't seen his parents in four years, not since they moved to another province to take jobs in a chemical-supplies factory. Now husband and wife combine to make about $9,120 a year, but "we work 11 hours a day," said Guangwu. "Thirty days a month when there are 30 days in that month, and 31 days when there are 31."
On Aug. 10 Long's parents were able to watch their son win his medal on a 29-inch TV that the county sports administration bought them for the occasion. Qingquan called afterward, but 10 days later there was still no plan for a reunion. He hopes to use his winnings to free his parents of life in the chemical plant, maybe fund a small business for them near the training site in the Hunan capital. "We will do whatever Qingquan says," Guangwu said. "If he ask us to quit our jobs and stay at home, we will. If he tells us to keep working, we will."
But Qingquan doesn't expect his life to change much. "I know I'm getting a lot of attention," he said, "and if I go out in the street -- which I haven't yet since I won the gold -- a lot of people would probably recognize me. I rarely go out anyway."
In fact, there seemed to be little celebrating, and even less relaxation, for the Chinese athletes after the immediate flush of victory. Few parents were seen during competitions, in the stands or on the national broadcast. Most families couldn't afford the cost of travel and tickets. The effect was an odd air of isolation about the Chinese team, and it didn't end when the athletes stopped competing. Right up until the closing ceremonies, all were kept on a short leash. No one was allowed to return home -- not even first-time gold medalist Chen Ying, who won the 25-meter pistol event on the fifth day of the Games only to find out afterward that her mother, Zhang Zhimin, had kept secret a breast-cancer diagnosis for three months so as not to distract her.
Reached at her home in a Beijing suburb on Aug. 21, a week after her daughter had finished her Olympics, Zhang said, "She's still with the team. She won't come home until the 29th. There's no exceptions or special treatment."
Whether Chinese authorities wanted merely to maintain control of these tightly controlled games, or to keep the nosy media at bay, or to delay the inevitable changes in the lives of their newest stars isn't clear. Least of all to the athletes themselves. "They tell us there are terrorists out there," Long Qingquan said. "Do you think they are trying to scare us?"