The U.S. Olympic Committee announced yesterday an unprecedented policy of grants that will entitle American athletes who win gold medals at the Olympics to bonuses of $15,000 each.

In a move that will significantly increase the amount of money targeted to successful athletes, the USOC plans to spend $7.6 million over the next four years to pay performance bonuses at elite international competitions.

The new policy reflects an emerging philosophy among U.S. Olympic officials about the need to increase funding for elite athletes and will bring the United States more in line with some other nations that routinely provide money and perks for Olympians.

In addition to the award for an Olympic gold medal, the USOC will give an athlete $10,000 for winning a silver medal, $7,500 for a bronze and $5,000 for a fourth-place finish at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, and the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

"This is an extension of our subsistence program and another incentive to keep athletes on board, not just through another Olympics, but through the world championships as well," U.S. Olympic Committee Executive Director Harvey Schiller said yesterday.

"This is answering the strong demand on the part of our athletes to help them with their training."

At world championships or comparable international events in non-Olympic years, an athlete will receive $5,000 for first, $4,000 for second, $3,500 for third, $3,000 for fourth and $2,500 for fifth through eighth.

Previously, the USOC provided $2,500 to any athlete who had a top-eight finish in the Olympics, world championships or significant other international competitions.

The USOC is neither the first national Olympic committee to offer widespread bonuses nor the most generous.

Spain offered the equivalent of $1 million to any of its athletes who won a gold medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. In 1988, the former Soviet Union gave $20,000 to its Olympic gold medalists. Poland gave its gold medalists $10,000 and Hungary offered a pay scale ranging from $10,000 for a gold medal to a $4,500 insurance policy for a lower finish.

And Greece will provide its top Olympic performers with perks similar to those provided members of parliament, including cars, housing loans and jobs, according to the national economy minister.

The USOC move, reported in yesterday's editions of the Dallas Morning News, is part of an overall USOC effort to increase direct funding to athletes.

In the 1989-92 quadrennium, the USOC gave $26 million in grants to athletes and another $79 million to its federations that govern individual sports.

In the 1993-96 quadrennium, those numbers have increased, respectively, to $38 million and $108 million, said Mike Moran, USOC director of public information and media relations.

Funding for the new bonus plan has been approved, but the specific details will not be voted on until the USOC's board of directors meeting June 5-6 in Salt Lake City.

One USOC concern is how it will handle a possible public relations nightmare if its contributors object to bonuses being offered to athletes who make millions of dollars in their sports. (The USOC receives no federal support and relies on private contributions and sponsorships for its revenue.)

American tennis star Jennifer Capriati, for example, who won the gold medal in Barcelona, earns millions of dollars a year through prize money and endorsements. The same is true for members of the gold medal-winning men's U.S. basketball team -- the "Dream Team" composed largely of National Basketball Association superstars.

It's likely the USOC will consider a policy in which athletes who make more than $200,000 a year are asked to donate their bonus money to developmental sports programs.

"We've seen and heard from athletes like the NBA players who saythey don't want the money," Schiller said. "They'd rather donate it to someone who needs it."

Other sports that would be affected by a so-called salary cap would include figure skating, track and field and gymnastics.

Also, the USOC will pay $1,000 for significant improvement at the Olympics, world championships or other international competition -- even if an athlete does not win a medal or finish high enough to qualify for bonuses.

This funding is designed to encourage athletes competing in sports in which the United States has not been that successful.