OPINION | $50K US bonus to Olympic champions is a good 1st step in increasing track and field’s profile | CBC Sports

First, the good news: Olympic gold medals in track and field are now worth money, guaranteed.

Wednesday morning, World Athletics announced it would pay a $50,000 U.S. bonus to gold medallists at this summer’s Olympics in Paris. The move will cost $2.4 million — about what an NBA team pays the fifth guy off the bench, but a significant sum for World Athletics, which brought in $54.9 million in revenue in 2022 and still lost money, according to that year’s annual report.

The program is unique among Olympic sports, and World Athletics plans to pay all medallists at the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

It’s still a breakthrough.

Until now, the Olympics operated sort of like the NCAA does in the Name-Image-Likeness (NIL) era. Organizers can’t pay you to compete, because that violates amateurism or something. But if competing raises your profile, you’re free to monetize your fame via sponsorships.

The flaw in that setup for Olympic athletes — who are already professionals in that they train and compete full-time — jumps out immediately. If you compete in an event nobody watches, there’s no bump in visibility, and no Wheaties box or trip to Disney World afterward.

And that post-Olympic window of opportunity to cash in on sponsorship deals?

It closes faster than we think.

Visibility for track and field champions

This year’s closing ceremony takes place Aug. 11; NHL training camps open less than a month later. That’s just enough time for mainstream Canadian sports fans to forget all but the highest-profile Olympic champs.

We love the Olympics while they’re on, but aren’t obligated to pay attention eight weeks later. Brands like winners, but don’t have to commit long-term to them. Olympic gold is among the most cherished titles in sport, but the reality is after you win one, nobody owes you anything.

Unless you win it in track and field this summer. Then World Athletics owes you $50,000.

Men's track and field sprinter looks up at the scoreboard after finishing a race.
Canada’s Andre De Grasse will look to claim a gold medal and $50,000 payout at the 2024 Olympics in Paris. (Petr David Josek/AP Photo)

Medals have sentimental value, but warm feelings won’t pay your mortgage. 

So credit World Athletics for putting cash in athletes’ hands this summer, and helping erase the blurry line between pro sport and Olympic competition. The move also puts track and field in the spotlight on the last slowish news day before The Masters becomes the sports media’s focal point. But solving the sport’s more fundamental visibility problem is a longer-term challenge with few easy answers.

First, more credit to World Athletics, which, in announcing its gold medal payouts, demonstrated that it knows how to get its marketing message into news stories. Modern cliché mongers might call it “pushing a narrative,” but I prefer the older name for it.


World Athletics’s spin

Consider that World Athletics awards  $70,000 to gold medallists at the World Outdoor Championships, and cuts a smaller cheque to each of the other seven finalists. Against that backdrop, you could argue that World Athletics has simply adjusted its long-standing tradition of slashing medallists’ pay.

Bronze and silver medallists still receive nothing from the sport’s international governing body, but the champion will receive a fraction of what they would have for winning in Budapest last summer. It’s still progress, I guess, but framing it that way doesn’t generate headlines and congratulations.

So shout out to World Athletics for this marketing winner. It’s a triumph for an organization better known for unforced errors that diminish the sport’s appeal.

WATCH | Men’s U Sports athlete on breaking 1,000m record at track & field championships:

Max Davies reflects on breaking the 1,000m U Sports record

The Guelph Gryphons distance runner showcased his prowess and promise by winning three gold medals at the 2024 U Sports Track & Field Championships.

The one-and-done false start rule still exists, for example, because the only thing more entertaining than watching the eight fastest people on the planet blaze through a 100-metre final, is seeing a race marshall red-card somebody because a computer said they reacted 1/1000th of a second too quickly. Weirdos tune in for the competition. Real sports fans want to see to-the-letter rule enforcement.

But in announcing Olympic gold medal bonuses, World Athletics acknowledges something many of us doubted that they would ever fully understand.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe told reporters that the payouts were a recognition that “the revenue share that we receive is in large part because our athletes are the stars of the show.”

Other sports with mainstream aspirations already get it.

Indiana Fever’s national broadcast bump

On Wednesday morning the WNBA released its 2024 broadcast schedule, which features the Indiana Fever in 36 national broadcasts. A head-scratcher if you look at the Fever as the third-worst team in the league in 2023, but a no-brainer if you keep in mind that they’re slated to pick first overall in this spring’s entry draft. They’ll select Caitlin Clark, the superstar shooting guard for Iowa, who broke scoring records in her last college season, and played an outsized role in making the Women’s Final Four one of the most-watched sports events of the year

Clark’s audience is national, and so is the WNBA’s. The league and its broadcast partners recognize that some portion — most? many? all? — of Clark’s fans will follow her to the pros, and represent a chance to grow the whole league’s fan base. It’s a generational opportunity, and the Fever and the WNBA intend to capitalize.

Track works a little differently.

The WNBA has Clark, whose profile grew along with her skill set — steadily, over four seasons at Iowa. It also has a consistent schedule, and easy-to-find games. 

Track has phenomenal athletes, too, but a more scattered schedule, with stars opting in or out of competitions depending on health, training goals and appearance fees. You can look at a calendar and figure out when Clark and the Fever will play the New York Fever and 2023 MVP Breanna Stewart — May 16 on Amazon Prime, and two days later on ABC. If you want to throw a viewing party, you can start planning now.

Two basketball players walk off the court.
Iowa’s Caitlin Clark walks off the court after losing the NCAA women’s title game on Saturday. The next time she sees the court could be in the WNBA, with the Indiana Fever expected to make Clark the top pick in Monday’s draft. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

But when will we see Sha’Carri Richardson, Shericka Jackson and Elaine Thompson-Herah in the same 100 metre race?

Whenever it makes sense for everyone. So, maybe at a Diamond League meet in May or June, but maybe not until the Olympic final in August. If you’re planning a viewing party for this particular event, don’t bake that cake until the day before.

It’s not the athletes’ fault. Each one has a unique trajectory leading to a peak at the Olympics, so they compete strategically until then, even if it means skipping some high-profile showdowns.

A generation ago, it might not have mattered. Who remembers how many times Donovan Bailey raced Frankie Fredricks in the 1996 season leading up to the 100m final in Atlanta? Not me, and I’m a track nerd.

But modern sports fans have their screens on 24/7/365, and expect fresh content all the time — training, early season races, high-stakes finals. If your sport doesn’t deliver it, another one will. All sports go through these digital growing pains, but sports like track and field, niche products with mainstream aspirations, feel them more acutely.

So announcing payouts to Olympic champions won’t win the bigger competition for sports fans’ attention. That contest never ends.

But it won the news cycle Wednesday morning.

For track and field, it’s a start.

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