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What's the cost of a gold medal?

(MoneyWatch) We tend to think of sport as a great metaphor for business -- as a competition requiring discipline, motivation, inspiration. But is taking part in the Olympics a good investment for the athletes. Let's face it, the amateur spirit of the Olympics is pretty much dead and gone, so are the games at least worth it as a commercial opportunity?

The physical medals themselves have value, of course. A gold medal, which is made of both silver and gold, is estimated to cost approximately $1,000. Governments also give money to their winning athletes, although the reward varies by country. In Singapore, the national Olympic committee awards gold medalists $800,000; if you're from Kyrgyzstan, you get $200,000; in Russia, $135,000. By contrast, American athletes get just $25,000 per gold -- on which, unlike in most other countries, they must pay tax.

But athletes in countries that offer the smallest bounties typically have the bigger sponsorship opportunities. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, who in the London Games became the most decorated Olympian of all time, may expect a lifetime income now of $100 million as a result of his exploits. But that is because he's so fantastically rare. He is a super-achiever in a popular sport that attracts a big enough audience so that the champions are recognizable and, therefore, worth sponsoring.

U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas, winner of the women's gymnastics all-around competition, is already reaping rewards -- her face is on a cereal box. More sponsorship is bound to flow her way. We have to hope that her success is compensation enough for having left her mother and her home -- and childhood -- at a dauntingly early age in order to join an elite training program.

Of course, just reaching the Olympics incurs huge costs. In the U.K., every gold medal is estimated to have  required $15 million of investment. So it's not surprising that richer nations tend to do better. They can afford the investment, and they're more likely to have the required facilities. You won't see a lot of swimmers from Ethiopia for the simple reason that the country boasts just one swimming pool for every 6 million citizens.

Medals require money to pay for training, coaches, doctors, and equipment. But don't forget the human opportunity cost: if you're hoping to qualify for the Olympics, you have to start early, give up almost everything we consider to be a normal childhood and invest years in training.

A year ago, I interviewed British Olympic 400 meter hurdler Dai Green, who holds the world record in his sport. He told me how he'd moved home to be near a world-class training center. For years, he got up every morning and trained, then went home, watched TV, went to bed, and started it all again the next day. Being in a strange town, he didn't know anyone, and he wasn't allowed to stay up late or to drink. Occasionally his girlfriend would travel to meet him, but otherwise his social life was non-existent.

Green wasn't complaining. Years of hard work, discipline, and loneliness were predicated on winning gold this week. All his colleagues thought he'd make it. With gold he would be financially set for life, with sponsors, a career on the motivational speaking circuit, and perhaps even a broadcast career. All his eggs were in that basket.

He placed fourth in the finals this week. No medal for him. At least in business, when you fail you usually still have a job to go to. 

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