BEIJING — How much is an Olympic medal worth?
If you're a U.S. gold medal winner, the answer is $25,000 courtesy of the U.S. Olympic Committee plus millions more in potential endorsement deals. A silver medal comes with a $15,000 prize, and a bronze medal brings in $10,000.
If you're Chinese, your gold medal is worth least $150,000 in national government prize money plus, yes, millions of dollars more in potential endorsement deals, according to a top Chinese athletics expert. Silver and bronze also pay.
If you're Afghan taekwondo bronze medal winner Rohullah Nikpai, the first Afghan to ever win an Olympic medal, you go home with a new house in the Afghan capital of Kabul courtesy of President Hamid Karzai, a new Toyota sedan and $20,000 from the Afghan-American owner of the country's main cell phone network.
In the fierce hunt for Olympic medals, many countries offer such financial prizes to spur athletic excellence and the national glory that comes with it. Some athletes said the cash was a long-delayed reward for years of work and sacrifice, especially in obscure sports without lucrative professional futures.
The U.S. basketball team's star Kobe Bryant, for example, may make millions a year in salary and endorsements, but the chances of an Olympic trap shooter getting his or her own brand of sneakers are slim.
Make no mistake, athletes said, it was still mainly about the competitive spirit and beating personal bests. But they weren't about to turn down the cash.
"In my situation, this economic prize is very important for Afghan athletes," said Nikpai, who worked as an auto mechanic in Kabul before dedicating himself full-time to taekwondo. "This culture of incentives is very important all around the world but doesn't really exist in Afghanistan. We need to have more of this."
Even before the Olympics, U.S. athletes at national training centers received monthly stipends, room and board and all manner of other support. The incentive program was set up to provide inspiration, said U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Darryl Seibel.
"For most of the athletes, the push for a gold medal is not driven by opportunity for financial gain," he said. "It's driven by their competitive nature and the pursuit of their full potential as an athlete."
That was the case of gold medal-winning U.S. wrestler Henry Cejudo, whose underdog victory was one of the Beijing Games' best tales.
Cejudo's parents were illegal immigrants from Mexico, and his mother raised him and his siblings alone in the United States without the help of his father, who had a checkered criminal past.
Cejudo said his gold medal was about nothing more than a personal triumph over the odds.
"I don't even know how much this thing is worth," Cejudo said holding up the gold medal hanging around his neck. "It's about the fire within. I'd live in a cardboard box to show the world what I do."
Then again, the financial rewards were pretty nice too, said Cejudo, 21, who's already begun the hunt for an agent.
"I can't wait," Cejudo said. "I want to buy some things."
For Nikpai, who went from being an auto mechanic to a national hero in a matter of seconds, winning a bronze was heady business.
Millions of people across war-scarred Afghanistan watched Nikpai's victory on television, and afterward, the fighter received congratulatory phone calls from President Karzai as well as Afghanistan's first and second vice presidents.
That's when Nikpai, who lives with his brother, learned that he had won a house. He still doesn't know where his house is or what he'll do with it. But with plans to return to the 2012 Olympics, he can't wait to see what a silver medal brings.