BEIJING -- How much is an Olympic gold medal worth? For China's newest sports stars, fresh from triumph in Athens and idolized by a sports-crazy public, the country's ongoing rush to capitalism means they can cash in like never before.
China, in its best Olympic showing, won 32 gold medals at the Athens Games, second only to the United States. The surprise result earned high praise from China's government, which called on all Chinese to learn from the athletes.
''The excellent performance by China's athletes again shows the spirit of the Chinese nation's unremitting efforts to improve itself," the government said in a message broadcast repeatedly on state-run television. ''The motherland is proud of you, and the people are proud of you."
Yet even as China's communist rulers cast the Olympians as something akin to the selfless ''model workers" of its proletariat past, the country's market-oriented present means athletes are bound to profit heartily from their newfound hero status.
As China gears up to host the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, the power of the Olympic brand will only grow, marketers say.
For the stars of Athens, the central government has promised prizes of up to $24,000 for Olympic medalists, and individual provinces also plan to rain cash on their local stars, the official People's Daily newspaper said in its online edition.
Yunnan, for example, will give weightlifter Zhang Guozheng $180,000 for being the first from the province to capture Olympic gold.
Still to come are the commercial endorsements, speaking engagements, and free merchandise that are par for the course in developed nations.