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President promises to make millionaires out of Georgian Olympic champions

By Shorena Labadze
Tuesday, July 22
“If I were you, I would think more about winning as the Georgian government has made a decision to give one million lari as a prize to each gold medal winner,” the Georgian president told the country’s Olympic athletes on July 21. “An extra million wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

President Mikheil Saakashvili urged the Georgian athletes to inspire others with success at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, which offer the chance of a large dose of national pride for the country.

“You must realize how important the mission each successful sportsman has is. Each of your successes means thousands who will come after you in your work,” he said. “Georgia needs victory. Georgia is looking forward to your achievements.”

Saakashvili promised to put more money into supporting Georgian sports, including building more playing fields.

The prize money will be paid to athletes out of the president’s personal fund, according to Kakha Beridze, a spokesman for the Georgian Olympic Committee.

“We [the committee] have a lot of jobs to do which aren’t seen from the outside. All the matters connected with the delegations departure, arranging their hotels and many other organizational jobs are performed by the committee. But the million [lari] the president talked about will be paid from his fund,” Beridze said.

Spokespeople for the Culture and Sports Ministry and the president’s administration were not available to comment on this article.

Olympic gold medal winner Robert Shavlakadze said the million lari prize is a fair reward for athletes’ efforts.

“It is a great present for sportsmen. There are 33 participants, from which one or two may become a winner. And it’s worth paying two million for such a great event,” said Shavlakadze, who won a gold medal for the Soviet Union in the 1960 Olympic Games.

Shavlakadze’s state award in 1960, he said, was a bouquet of flowers at the airport upon his return.

Georgian weightlifter Rauli Tsirekidze, 21, said the promise of riches might actually hinder athletes’ performances.

“On the one hand it’s a great stimulus, but if a sportsman is thrown into thoughts of his affluent future, he will be burned out psychologically,” said Tsirekidze. “99 percent of this sport, and not only this sport, is [psychology]. A sportsman must not think about money, but about physical firmness.”

Still, the young weightlifter says, the money would be well-earned.

“Not only a million, but even ten million isn’t too much for a sportsman who gets a gold medal. Of course, it isn’t a little [amount], but it isn’t disproportionate either,” Tsirekidze commented.

Olympic champion and current MP Giorgi Asanidze praised the president’s announcement, noting that there are just five countries in the world which lavish so much on Olympic medal winners.

“This title [of medal winner] is important for the country to such an extent that this amount is worth paying,” Asanidze said.

33 Georgian athletes in ten different sports will compete in the Olympics. The first delegation leaves for Beijing on July 28, with competition beginning in early August.

In the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Georgia won two gold and two silver medals. Georgian athletes have competed in the Olympics since 1954, according to Shavlakadze, the 1960 medal winner. He says Georgia has had 28 Olympic champions and more than 300 world champions.