When the Olympic games were strictly made up of amateurs, Oregon native Steve Prefontaine became a cult figure for living in a mobile home east of the University of Oregon as he trained for the 1500m in the 1972 Munich Olympics.
At that time, American amateur athletes were competing against “full-time amateurs” of the Eastern Bloc countries, putting self-financed amateurs of the Western countries at a disadvantage. “Pre” and others led a fight against the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until after the 1988 Games that professional athletes were eligible for the Olympics. Allowing professional athletes to compete increased competition and made the Olympics more appealable, but it also attracted a lot of hungry sponsors.
Last night, the 2012 London Summer Olympics kicked off one of the largest sponsored events in sports history, yet these athletes aren’t getting paid. It’s the nature of the beast—everybody wants to make money from sports—but outdated polices governing athletes’ endorsements restrict their best opportunity (the Olympics) to make money.
Nick Symmonds, an 800m runner representing the U.S. in London, has been on a campaign this summer, trying to bring awareness to sponsorship discrepancies at the Olympic games. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the IOC want to protect their event sponsors, like Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Visa, and GE. They have a policy where athletes are not allowed to represent their individual sponsors in any way because it could lessen an investment with event sponsors.
Symmonds has famously worn a temporary tattoo placed on his left arm during races to promote Hanson Dodge—a Milwaukee outdoor lifestyle agency—that won an online bid for $11,100. A tattoo like this must be covered during Olympic competition under IOC rules.
Symmonds is in a unique position being a track and field athlete and representing Team USA. Unlike U.S. Basketball stars Lebron James and Kevin Durant, Symmonds isn’t taking a “summer vacation” to go win a gold medal. The Olympic games are the pinnacle of competition for athletes in sports such as track and field, swimming, rowing, archery, etc., and because of that, Olympic athletes from Olympic sports deserve every right to acquire individual sponsorship. This is their World Cup, their Grand Slam, their NBA Finals.
I would not go as far to insist certain sports do not belong in the Olympics, if their championship level is at a higher plane than Olympic competition; but sometimes I feel that it would at least be fair. The World Cup of soccer/football is a perfect example; so is tennis with its Grand Slam. The “Dream Team” of the NBA plays for a gold collectible item every four years, then the dozen superstars return to their multi-million dollar salaries in the winter.
Yes, it’s true track and field athletes make a considerable amount of money (still not a fraction of what King James or Federer make in a year), but many talented athletes are forced to retire before they reach their Olympic dreams because of financial inadequacy. Meanwhile, $6B is being exchanged and 10,000 athletes who have devoted four years of their lives to becoming part of the show are asked to do it for free. It just doesn’t make sense. Olympians—Olympic medalists even—living below the poverty line, is not American.
There are two options: 1) Return to the amateurism of the past, lower the performance level immensely, and depreciate the Games, thus ridding the Olympics of large sponsorships; or 2) Give Olympic athletes what they deserve: rights to individual sponsorship, and stop forcing athletes into early retirement.