Russian athletes who taste success at the Winter Olympics at Sochi in February will be rewarded with huge cash bonuses as the host nation bids to knock the United States off the top of the medal table.
Handouts from the Kremlin were announced on Monday, with President Vladimir Putin authorizing payments that will see Russian gold medalists rewarded with four million rubles ($122,000) each, with silver medals worth $76,000 and bronze $46,000. According to the OECD Better Life Index, the average Russian worker makes $15,286 per year.
Information relating to the medal payments was posted on the Russian government website and is aimed at improving the medal haul of the team, which brought back only 15 medals, three of them gold, from the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. The U.S. topped the medal count with 37, while Canada had the most golds with 14.
Such payments, first instituted in the 1990s following the break-up of the Soviet Union, were originally designed to help athletes who were often surviving on small state subsidies.
Now however, generous as the government’s payouts might seem, they are likely to be dwarfed by additional rewards facilitated by wealthy businessmen who sponsor Russian sports.
Many of Russia’s oil billionaires, whose lavish earnings have been made possible by contracts awarded by the state, have been firmly encouraged by Putin to reinvest a portion of their wealth into Russian sports. As a result, most soccer teams in Russian Premier League are owned by oligarchs, while most Russian Olympic sports federations also have rich backers.
While details on the exact nature of the payments Olympic champions can now receive have been relatively closely guarded, a small insight was provided by the comments of a Russian Olympic Committee member during last year's Summer Olympics in London. Akhmed Bilalov, vice president of the ROC, told the London Telegraph that Russia’s wrestling federation had rewarded gold medalists at the 2008 Beijing Games with payments of up to $500,000, a figure which he expected to double. For summer athletes, additional bonus payments came courtesy of tycoon Vladimir Lisin, who is worth an estimated $24 billion, according to Forbes.
The now-standard benefactor payments may be part of the reason why the government medal awards for Sochi are actually a little lower than those for Vancouver in 2010.
Back then, a gold medal bonus was worth $135,000, with silver receiving around $81,600 and bronze $54,4000. Those payments were expected to deliver a return of 40 medals and at least nine golds, but the team fell well short of expectations.
Russia was also disappointed in its performance at London, where it placed third with 82 medals, with the fourth-highest number of golds (24).
"Russia is no longer the athletic powerhouse it used to be during the Soviet Union," former rower German Prostov told the Moscow Times last summer.