OK is likely for Olympic Green Team USOC set to vote on paying winners

June 05, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Jeff Klepacki, one of the best heavyweights rowers in the United States, says $15,000 can buy two boats, or a car, or a few years of room and board.

It could also be the official prize of a made-in-America gold-medal dream.

This weekend, Klepacki and hundreds of other American Olympians will learn whether they'll be competing for money and medals at future Olympic and world championship events.

"I'm not going to think of money for the gold medal as an incentive," said Klepacki, of East Windsor, N.J. "But it would help to pay off all the expenses of an Olympic campaign."

The U.S. Olympic Committee board of directors, meeting in Salt Lake City, is expected to approve a plan to pay cash to medal-winning American athletes at Olympic and world championship events.

The $7.6 million USOC program, which was unveiled last month, won't turn America's Olympians into millionaires. But the cash incentives will help some financially strapped athletes clear their debts while competing.

The proposed program will offer $15,000 for a gold medal, $10,000 for a silver, $7,500 for a bronze and $5,000 for a fourth-place finish to each individual participant or team member at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

In non-Olympic years, smaller payments will be spread among top-eight world championship performers.

"I see this as a way of giving people who do not have the opportunity, the chance to participate," said Dr. Harvey Schiller, USOC executive director. "We don't want to make this an organization for the well-to-do. It's not that large of an amount of money paid for gold medals. No one is going to turn to their child and say, 'If you go to the pool every year for the next 15 years, you could get $15,000 for a medal.' "

By international standards, the program, modeled after aid systems used by former Eastern bloc nations, isn't the most generous.

Spanish athletes received $1 million gold-medal bonuses at the 1992 Olympics. Athletes from the Soviet Union received $20,000 for a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Games.

The last decade has ignited a rush to professionalism in almost every Olympic sport. The U.S. men's volleyball team split a purse of more than $330,000 for a third-place world league finish last year. American swimmers receive world-record bonuses and cyclists race for cash prizes.

And at this year's World Track & Field Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, organizers won't just award gold medals -- they'll be handing over Mercedes Benzes.

"There is no such thing as an amateur athlete anymore," said Mark Lenzi, the 1992 Olympic gold medalist in men's 3-meter diving. "The difference between us and pro basketball is we don't get millions of dollars. If people want to complain about Olympic athletes getting money, all I can say is, do what we do, and then see how you feel."

The plan is among the final pieces in a puzzle to directly fund American athletes. From 1989 to 1992, the USOC gave $26 million in grants to athletes. Grants are expected to total $38 million from 1993 to 1996.

"The 'pay-for-medals' proposal is just an extension of our funding," Schiller said.

Still to be determined is whether bonuses will be offered to some of America's millionaire Olympians in basketball, tennis and track and field. Schiller is among those who support the adoption of a salary cap, under which athletes who earn more than $200,000 a year are asked to return the bonus money to developmental sports programs.

USOC president Leroy Walker also has voiced concerns.

"The question is whether you want to put it [the financial support] on the front end or the back end," Walker said last month after addressing the Black Coaches Association convention in Atlanta. "I just happen to favor it on the front end."

Despite the reservations of some officials, the program has drawn almost universal praise from America's athletes.

"It's long overdue," Lenzi said. "Getting money for medals will make things a little sweeter."

Still, a gold medal is only worth $15,000 -- which is what a family of four is likely to pay for attending the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

"It's not like it is a million dollars," said Launi Meili, the 1992 gold medalist in women's three-position rifle. "If you think of how expensive food and air fare overseas are, it's an expensive game now to be the best in the world. But you are always willing to pay the price."

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