Oleg Verniaiev talked to RIA Novosti Ukraine about how winning an Olympic medal can change the life of an athlete in Ukraine.
Q: At the 2016 Olympics you put gold and silver into Ukraine’s “bank”. Did the successful performance in Brazil change your life in any way?
A: Definitely. At the very least, there’s more attention now. People recognize me, support me. For example, if before the Olympics I had 15,000 subscribers [on Instagram], after the Games, it climbed to more than 50,000 in just a few days. On the other hand, there’s more responsibility – I’m a public person now and it’s very inadvisable to make mistakes. For instance, I had to be doubly responsible for everything I write and post. Now I don’t need to beg the sports officials for something or give provocative interviews so that the officials would pay attention to some issue. After the Olympic victory in Rio, I can just write or call the mister or the deputy minister and tell them about the problem. They will tell right away whether they can help or not. There are no empty promises anymore like “Maybe we will do it, maybe we won’t”.
Q: So, if an athlete goes to the Olympics, he can rightfully expect that his life can change drastically?
A: If this person is going to the Games not just as sort of a “tourist”, then yes, of course. If the athlete strikes and gets lucky, a lot of things in his life will 100% change for the better. For example, right after the Olympics I bought a new car, bought an apartment.
Q: Objectively speaking, out of all the Ukrainian athletes in Rio you were the most triumphant. Did the life of other athletes also change for the better?
A: As far as I know, everything’s well with Olga Kharlan who won a medal in fencing. Zhan Beleniuk who won silver in Rio bought a car. Yuri Cheban who won gold in rowing also seems to be doing fine. The Olympics is a great way to raise not just your athletic but also your financial status. Even if an athlete wins bronze, he immediately gets $55,000 as a reward. In addition, the salary is automatically raised for the next two years. Anyway, after the Olympics, many just simply want to spoil themselves a bit, give themselves a nice gift – a person was working like crazy for 20 years and wants to get some sort of a reward for their labor. Especially, since the Olympics takes place only every four years – you made it today but tomorrow it might not happen for you.
Q: Why isn’t Ukraine strong at winter sports?
A: Generally, we have one sport that gets a priority – biathlon. The federation president, a businessman Vladimir Brynzak personally takes care of everything. I heard from many people that he helps a lot. And you can judge by the athletes that they have good financial support. Many say that no one invests in sports in Ukraine, but I’d like to bring two examples here. First example is the US where there’s a special law that gives business tax reductions when they invest in sports. Second example is Russia where federation presidents are heads of big businesses. For example, the president of the Russian artistic gymnastics federation is the head of the VTB bank. Once we asked [the ministry] for one set of apparatuses to prepare for the competitions and we were refused. At the same time, Russia bought 40 sets, each costing about 200,000-300,000 euros. I think that in Ukraine, businesses have to invest in sports but they also have to be given certain privileges for that. Otherwise, no one will just give a million to some athlete to compete.
Q: Igor Zhdanov, the Sports minister, revealed the rewards to the medals at the PyeongChang Games: $125,000 for gold, $80,000 for silver and 65,000 for bronze. Is it a lot or a little on the international scale?
A: Generally, in that sense, Ukraine is firmly in the middle. For example, in Azerbaijan, they pay half a million dollars for an Olympic gold. That’s from the country’s president. Then the athlete is taken to all the ministers – one will give an apartment, another will give a car… As a result, they might get up to a million dollar for the Olympic gold. On the other hand, in the US they only give $25,000 for a gold medal. But the athletes become millionaires as a result of contracts and advertisements.
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