Before, we had to win for the government, for politics, for communism. The freedom we now have can lead us to making very good money for ourselves. Now we can reap what we sow. Now, if I win, I become a famous person, I become a rich person. All athletes respond to this motivation.
Triple gold-medal-winning Russian swimmer
No longer does a grim parade of political robots pour out of Mother Russia and the other republics of the old U.S.S.R. at Olympic time, declaring allegiance to communism and offering gratitude for the small rewards that the Soviet system gave its superstars—drab apartments, inferior cars, a handful of rubles. Now, six years after perestroika first struck, a new generation of wannabe capitalists stormed into Barcelona, determined to take full advantage of their homelands' brave new world of economic freedom.
Last week the two brightest young swimmers on the talented Unified Team, Aleksandr Popov and Yevgeny Sadovyi, racked up seven medals between them, after which they instantly became Exhibits A and B in the ongoing conversion of former Soviet athletes from tools of a totalitarian state to ambitious players in the world of free markets and profit motives.
You could call them the Perestroika Twins, but they are far from identical. Sadovyi, 19, is the bald and boyish one, the gold medalist in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles and the 4 X 200 freestyle relay. Popov, 20, is blindingly handsome, standing a perfectly molded 6'6" and possessing a superstar smile that has more than a hint of Magic in it. He won gold in the 100 and 50 frees, plus silver in the 4 X 100 free and the 4 X 100 medley relays.
Wildly different as they are in looks and demeanor, the unmatched pair holds exactly the same exalted opinion of free-market economics. "I am a child of perestroika," declares Popov. "It gave me a chance to be my best."
Like all members of the Unified Team, both swimmers received $3,000 from the Russian Olympic Committee for each gold medal and $2,000 for each silver—meaning $9,000 for Sadovyi, $10,000 for Popov. Such amounts are a windfall in Russia's desperate economy. Both athletes also anticipate an abrupt leap in income from international commercial sponsors and meet promoters. When he is asked whether that leap might double or triple his income, Popov thought for several moments and then said softly, "No, I think maybe it increases 10 times." Also included in Popov's immediate financial future is a healthy payday when he competes in France on Aug. 12 at a meet for supersprinters that will include Matt Biondi and Tom Jager of the U.S., Popov's upset victims in the 50-meter free.
And what of some Biondi-sized fees for making television ads? Alas, there is no such thing in Russia. Vladimir Geskin, editor of Sport Express, a national newspaper published in Russia, says, "There are tons of commercials on our TV now, but athletes have never been used in them. Sexy women, yes, advertise for banks and to sell everything from lumber to barrels of fish, but never sports stars, even though my country is sports crazy."
Mired deep in an economic gloom caused by a plummeting ruble, rising inflation and other wrenching side-effects of the transition to a market economy, the people of the former Soviet Union have had heavier matters weighing on their minds. But there have been reports that the television coverage of the Olympics in the Commonwealth of Independent States was raising morale. Yet Aleksandr Pesov, a veteran swimming writer for the Russian Information Agency, agrees that Sadovyi and Popov must look outside their own country for the big money: "Because of the bad economy at home, I think Popov and Sadovyi will have to take advantage of Western sponsors. This generation of athletes is much more clever than previous ones. They will learn how to make money from Olympic medals."
Maybe so. But as of last week, neither Popov nor Sadovyi had received any substantial offers from international sponsors. And neither had signed with an agent. Yet they are clearly young men on the rise, full of themselves, a pair of heretofore unknown kids who are suddenly giving interviews to Paris Match and Japanese television crews. They have burst with great charm upon the world—and they've come a long way to do it.