My last post was ended with a question – if neither ideology nor a prospect of a lucrative professional contract were the motivational factors behind Kapitonov’s sporting career (and by implication, thousands of other athletes like him in many different sports), what was it then?
If you, dear reader, were waiting for a third alternative, I hate to disappoint you – there’s none. As all humans are, the Soviets were driven to succeed as much by material reward as the Italians, the Germans or the Americans. They’ve been deprived of private property, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of thought, among many other things, any and all entrepreneurial activity was illegal and indeed punishable by incarceration or even death in some circumstances , and yet, the rules of the game have not been changed – you win, you get paid. The bigger the win, the bigger the payout. Question is, how? The Soviet ideology did not permit it, the rules of the international federations, especially the IOC, forbade it. How did they manage to get paid? And, equally as important, was it worth it?
Let me start with the basics, with “bread & butter” of a high performance Soviet athlete – the salary. Where did it come from and who paid it?
Give you an example. Suppose you’re a team manager or one of the team managers and you know someone who knows someone else who knows someone in high standing position at a large factory, let’s say an executive director or even a chief accountant. You arrange a meeting. You bring Armenian cognac with you, a block of Marlboro as a small gift (neither of these things can be bought in the shops, not available) and have a chat. After half a bottle is gone, you say to the guy:
“Look, I’ve got 4 guys on my team who need to be paid a salary. They’re very good, top level kind of guys. It would be a shame if they go elsewhere because we can’t pay them. You can help us to keep them in the team though.”
“Well, we can employ them at your factory, I don’t care in what capacity as long as they will get a decent salary. I’ll give you paperwork for 5 guys but I need only 4 salaries, I don’t care what happens to the 5th salary. Of course, as I’m sure you know, these guys travel abroad quite a lot so if you, your wife or your kids need anything, let me know and we’ll organise it for you” (as I hope it will be clearer later, this proposition alone could be worth 10-15 of this guy’s monthly salaries).
“I’m always willing to help our athletes, they too need to eat, right? Well then, I’ll see you on Friday, bring the paperwork and we’ll take care of it.”
From this point on, as far as the criminal code was concerned, these two were partners in crime now and not just any crime but one of the most severally punishable – defrauding the State. Exceed 10,000 roubles (roughly 5 years worth of average yearly income) and you’re looking at an audience with the firing squad. I’m not kidding.
Back to cycling though. I was paid my first salary as a bike racer while being officially employed as a milling machine operator. You might be thinking at this point, Well, this is good but not better than a milling machine operator. True. But that’s not all. This, as I said above, is only what covers your basics, the “bread & butter” stuff. And besides, unlike any normal milling machine operator, a high performance athlete did not have to spend their salary, the State took care of everything – your food, dwelling, travel expenses, uniform and equipment, everything was provided or paid for. If you really wanted to, you could live without spending a dime for weeks so that not a very spectacular salary can become a fat account in a matter of months. And of course, who said you can only be employed at one place? The better you become as a racer, the more they’ll look after you.
Once you reach the Soviet national team level, one more perk kicks in for you – the national team member stipend. Because they called it a stipend (in Russian, it’s different from a salary), all was cool as far as ideology and the amateur rules were concerned. However, the stipend was, for example, almost twice as high as an engineer’s salary. Practically all members of the Soviet cycling national team were paid at least one salary already (some were paid two) arranged by their teams by one way or another, plus the stipend. Some of them were paid 4-5 times more than an engineer or a doctor. To give you some numbers to chew on, how much a typical engineer makes in Australia? Somewhat around $100,000. So how does a salary of $400,000 look like to you? Pretty good, eh. Mind you, you didn’t have to spend almost any of it if you didn’t want to. And very, very small tax was deducted from it, negligible.
When, at some point, I told my mum that I was paid more than both her and dad combined, she cried. Not because she thought it was unfair, quite the opposite, she was very happy for me.
This is not all. Far from it. Once you’re on any of the top tier teams, you begin to go West on a regular basis and that’s when you start making real money. Never mind the salary. Yes it drops a nice sum into your account every month but once you begin to go West, the salary doesn’t seem to be much of a big deal anymore. As far as money was concerned, going West was your most important goal pretty much from the very start or at least from a point in time when you learned from many different sources what this game, the game of a professional amateur, is all about – making money. Lots of it. How?
To be continued in Part III.