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Swimmers for Sale

Aleksandr Popov and Yevgeny Sadovyi hope to turn the medals they won in Barcelona into capitalist gold

Before, we had to win for the government, for politics, for communism. The freedom we now have can lead us to making very good money for ourselves. Now we can reap what we sow. Now, if I win, I become a famous person, I become a rich person. All athletes respond to this motivation.

Triple gold-medal-winning Russian swimmer

No longer does a grim parade of political robots pour out of Mother Russia and the other republics of the old U.S.S.R. at Olympic time, declaring allegiance to communism and offering gratitude for the small rewards that the Soviet system gave its superstars—drab apartments, inferior cars, a handful of rubles. Now, six years after perestroika first struck, a new generation of wannabe capitalists stormed into Barcelona, determined to take full advantage of their homelands' brave new world of economic freedom.

Last week the two brightest young swimmers on the talented Unified Team, Aleksandr Popov and Yevgeny Sadovyi, racked up seven medals between them, after which they instantly became Exhibits A and B in the ongoing conversion of former Soviet athletes from tools of a totalitarian state to ambitious players in the world of free markets and profit motives.

You could call them the Perestroika Twins, but they are far from identical. Sadovyi, 19, is the bald and boyish one, the gold medalist in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles and the 4 X 200 freestyle relay. Popov, 20, is blindingly handsome, standing a perfectly molded 6'6" and possessing a superstar smile that has more than a hint of Magic in it. He won gold in the 100 and 50 frees, plus silver in the 4 X 100 free and the 4 X 100 medley relays.

Wildly different as they are in looks and demeanor, the unmatched pair holds exactly the same exalted opinion of free-market economics. "I am a child of perestroika," declares Popov. "It gave me a chance to be my best."

Like all members of the Unified Team, both swimmers received $3,000 from the Russian Olympic Committee for each gold medal and $2,000 for each silver—meaning $9,000 for Sadovyi, $10,000 for Popov. Such amounts are a windfall in Russia's desperate economy. Both athletes also anticipate an abrupt leap in income from international commercial sponsors and meet promoters. When he is asked whether that leap might double or triple his income, Popov thought for several moments and then said softly, "No, I think maybe it increases 10 times." Also included in Popov's immediate financial future is a healthy payday when he competes in France on Aug. 12 at a meet for supersprinters that will include Matt Biondi and Tom Jager of the U.S., Popov's upset victims in the 50-meter free.

And what of some Biondi-sized fees for making television ads? Alas, there is no such thing in Russia. Vladimir Geskin, editor of Sport Express, a national newspaper published in Russia, says, "There are tons of commercials on our TV now, but athletes have never been used in them. Sexy women, yes, advertise for banks and to sell everything from lumber to barrels of fish, but never sports stars, even though my country is sports crazy."

Mired deep in an economic gloom caused by a plummeting ruble, rising inflation and other wrenching side-effects of the transition to a market economy, the people of the former Soviet Union have had heavier matters weighing on their minds. But there have been reports that the television coverage of the Olympics in the Commonwealth of Independent States was raising morale. Yet Aleksandr Pesov, a veteran swimming writer for the Russian Information Agency, agrees that Sadovyi and Popov must look outside their own country for the big money: "Because of the bad economy at home, I think Popov and Sadovyi will have to take advantage of Western sponsors. This generation of athletes is much more clever than previous ones. They will learn how to make money from Olympic medals."

Maybe so. But as of last week, neither Popov nor Sadovyi had received any substantial offers from international sponsors. And neither had signed with an agent. Yet they are clearly young men on the rise, full of themselves, a pair of heretofore unknown kids who are suddenly giving interviews to Paris Match and Japanese television crews. They have burst with great charm upon the world—and they've come a long way to do it.

When they are not traveling or training elsewhere, both of them live in Volgograd, a sprawling, squalid city of one million that was once called Stalingrad. Sadovyi shares a small apartment with his mother and four people from two other families. Popov, a native of Sverdlovsk in the Urals, lives in a dormitory at the Volgograd Institute of Physical Culture and Sport. Neither swimmer has a car or a telephone at home. Popov's father has worked all his life as a mechanic in a heavy-machinery factory; his mother is a secretary. Sadovyi's father left home when his son was four, and his mother, a hairdresser by trade, took to selling black-market perfumes and colognes to her customers to support herself and her son.

"It was dangerous, and she might have been investigated and put in prison," Sadovyi says. "But she kept me on the straight and narrow." He recalls that his mother's shady business practices made him the target of playground bullies. "They were communist youths who derided all businessmen. But now, since perestroika, they admire everything about business—including my mother and me," he says. "It makes me laugh." She saved enough money, in fact, to buy the apartment she and Yevgeny live in today—a luxury that only Volgograd's well-to-do can afford.

Popov began swimming seriously at eight; Sadovyi, at nine. They benefited from the state-controlled system until perestroika began to spread across the Soviet Union. But while the socialist economy was in its death throes, Popov and Sadovyi—as well as other elite athletes—were spared much of the hardship, thanks largely to selfless coaches and generous domestic sponsors who stepped in to replace disappearing state financing. These were the modest, pre-Olympic perks of elite athletes in Russia: relatively good housing and a little good food. "I had enough money to go the market and buy fresh fruits that are healthier than food left on the shelf for a long time," says Sadovyi. "Our communal apartment is crowded. But nobody gets enough money to live really well unless they have won an Olympic medal."

Sadovyi's coach of 11 years, Viktor Avdienko, 34, now operates a private swimming club in Volgograd, where Sadovyi trains. Popov is coached by Gennadi Turetsky and trains in Samara, up the Volga River from Volgograd. "Perestroika made economic times very hard for all of us," Avdienko says. "The state used to pay me regularly—not much, but regularly. Now that is gone and I find it very difficult, just like everyone in Russia. However, we have tried to protect Yevgeny from the worst of it by making certain he has a place to live and good food and a little money. Now we are going to try to improve his status so he can be guaranteed life as it should be lived by an Olympic gold medalist."

Avdienko is famed in Russia for his coaching techniques, but as a swimming club proprietor, he is constantly struggling to raise money to keep his facility open. In Barcelona he has been trying to market his training techniques and facilities with a handout typed in broken English that begins, "Dear Mister: Mr. Victor Avdienko offers the collaboration with Volgograd Swimming Club to...get ready first-string athletes of national representative teams to main competitions." Rates begin at the rather modest sum of $600 per athlete for 20 days of training—including room and board.

Scramble though he must, Avdienko has found one loyal angel, a huge chicken-processing company in Volgograd. It is called Broiler, and it contributes enough to support Avdienko's athletes at a level approximating that which they enjoyed under communism. Indeed, Broiler executives promised Sadovyi that they would build him a house in Volgograd if he won a gold medal. "It will have a swimming pool in the back," says Sadovyi, "and my mother will sell her apartment, and my grandparents will move in, too. But then I may move out and have my own apartment."

Popov and Sadovyi share two Olympic idols: Vladimir Salnikov, the Soviet swimmer who won four gold medals in the 1980 and '88 Games, and pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, the world-record-holding Ukrainian and millionaire endorser. Of Salnikov, Sadovyi says, "I dreamed of him when I was a boy, and after I won the 400-meter race, he interviewed me for Russian television. It almost made me feel better than winning." And of Bubka, Popov says, "I have never met him, but I would like very much to talk to him now—about my future and my finances."

The two swimmers were fresh and full of youthful innocence as they laughed and kidded each other in Barcelona. Yet, one could not help but wonder if their upcoming celebrity and onrushing wealth might someday leave them spoiled rotten—the freshness replaced by cynicism, the innocence by greed. And then Sadovyi, with three gold medals around his neck, said quietly, "We will make very good money, for sure. But when I see Americans on the medal stand and they are weeping for their country, then I think that I also should let the world know that I am truly grateful to my country, to Russia, for allowing me the chance to be an Olympic champion."




If Sadovyi, here in the 400, gets his wish, he'll fly high financially under the Russian flag.


[See caption above.]



Popov's asset is his Magic smile; Sadovyi's, his reserved brilliance.



In Spain, Bubka loomed as a model for other free-market dreamers.