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Winners With Wallets

But old-fashioned capitalist wealth offers ample compensation. The government bonuses given to Russians and Chinese can't compare with the multimillion-dollar contracts that top American athletes get from endorsing commercial products, as witnessed by the ubiquitous Visa ads featuring swimmer Michael Phelps.

Less famous members of the U.S. team can take advantage of deals offered by U.S. companies, such as Home Depot, which pays 49 U.S. Olympic team members a full-time salary with benefits for 20 hours of work a week, allowing plenty of time for training. U.S. Olympic training centers are equipped with laptops, video cameras and sensors designed to give athletes minutely detailed feedback on their technique. The Germans, meanwhile, have developed high-tech boats, bikes and bobsleds to give their athletes an edge.

(Kai Pfaffenbach -- Reuters)

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And for the ultimate illustration of how the Olympic field is tilted in favor of rich nations, there is the recent trend of athletes from impoverished lands "country hopping" to greener pastures. Asaad Said Saif Asaad -- the former Angel Popov -- is one of eight Bulgarian weightlifters whom the wealthy emirate of Qatar is funding for a reported $1 million to compete under its flag, according to the official Olympic Web site.

Perhaps even more important is the evolving market in coaches. "As the economies of the former communist nations melt down, a lot of the coaches who would have done very well in the old Soviet system in sports like gymnastics and figure skating are now moving to the United States," Wallechinsky said.

Still, a flourishing market economy can sometimes work against a country's Olympic interests. Assuming that every nation is endowed with a certain percentage of talented athletes, Wallechinsky said, "in the United States almost all these people are going to go into basketball, baseball, football and tennis" because that's where the money is. "In Russia, you can win a gold medal in weightlifting and be a national hero. In the U.S., you can win a gold medal in weightlifting and no one will hear about you a week later. We were great in weightlifting in the '50s, but the guys who used to be strong in weightlifting are becoming [football] linemen instead."

In some cases, societal factors may play as big a role as economics. India, for example, might be less of an Olympic laggard if the culture encouraged female athletes.

"I find it comforting that Olympic medals don't entirely follow GDP lines, because it supports my view that there's a lot more to life than GDP," Johnson said. "I wish that the ability to achieve athletic caliber were truly independent of economic or financial means. Think of the world records that could be broken if everyone had an equal opportunity to achieve their utmost. So I celebrate when Olympic medalists come from unexpected places."

But the cold, hard reality, he continued, is that economics often plays a decisive role, because "athletes need a support system. . . . If your main goal in life is to go out and make enough food to survive till tomorrow, you won't have a lot of time left for curling."

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