DEAR NICK SYMMONDS,

    I’ve never met you, but I have always been a fan. The excitement generated by your come-from-behind racing has lifted more than one arena to its collective feet, none more so than at the 2008 Olympic Trials 800-meter final in Eugene, Oregon.  Just this week, however, you entered another arena, politics, by creating a Facebook page called I’m tired of USATF and IAAF crippling our sport. And as I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough, this may be an even harder track to succeed on than the Mondo version you’ve zoomed to four national 800-meter titles atop.

You know you’ve struck a nerve when, in just two days, your Symmond’s summons has attracted nearly 5000 on-line friends as you outlined your main bone of contention:  Could someone please explain to me why NASCAR drivers can have literally DOZENS of ads on their competition uniforms, cars, etc and track and field athletes are FORBIDDEN to have ANY corporate logo on their warm-ups or competition uniforms? Track and field athletes are not even allowed to put corporate logos on the arms as temporary tattoos. These asinine rules have been created by our governing bodies USATF and IAAF and are crippling our sport by preventing the flow of dollars into it.”

Nick, there are literally thousands who share your frustration and concern.  And there have been many attempts over the years to lift track and running into the public consciousness. All have failed.  One reason, one you seemed to have overlooked, is that what you refer to as “these asinine rules created by our governing bodies” aren’t crippling THEIR sport, only yours. And that’s the point.

You are under the misapprehension that the IAAF governance is about the athletes. It’s not. Never has been. It’s about them.  Always has been.  And that’s not meant as an indictment of the people involved, many of whom are well-meaning and hard-working. It’s just the nature of bureaucracies.  Didn’t you see Chariots of Fire?  Tell me, what, substantially, has changed over the decades, except by matters of degree?

Sure, track and running are now “professional”, but why do you think so many top marathoners turned down the chance to represent their country at the World Championships in Daegu this August?  Because the money in Daegu wasn’t on par with what the market is offering in Berlin, Chicago, and New York City.  But there’s the nub of your problem. At least the road racers have an alternative. You don’t.  And the way the powers have structured the whole apparatus – with every athlete an independent contractor clawing for Olympic selection – you need the IAAF and USATF more than they need you.  And they know it! You’re just an individual. They own the game. They can fill your lane in an instant.

As presently constituted, with running controlled at the international level by remnants of a Victorian-era paternalism and class structure determined to protect positions of power and lifestyles that, at times, would make Donald Trump blanch, there exists not one scintilla of overview by a professional body representing the athlete’s interests mandated to protect, enlarge and package the sport’s assets within the marketplace. It’s a rigged game, not unlike what Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs calls “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” regarding the erosion of the American middle class.

When questioned in 1993 about the disparity of dollars awarded athletes under his jurisdiction vis-a-vis other sports, the late IAAF president Primo Nebiolo was unequivocal.

“Our goal is not to share with some great athletes the income that comes from our hard work and our efforts.  Our goal is to use this income to reinforce our federations and develop athletes all over the world.”

Their hard work, mind you, their efforts. Yet by assuming this anti-star posture, Nebiolo not only contradicted the market acknowledgement that the star-system is what generates public and economic interest – be it in Hollywood or the NBA – but he hamstringed his own efforts to do that which he claims was his goal.  The more you elevate your heroes the greater your own opportunity to expand grass roots programs as well. Stars pay a dividend. But developing athletes, you’ll notice, was only the second of his goals. “Reinforcing our federations” was number one.

As a further consequence of this federation-versus-athlete atmosphere, the IAAF continues to unwittingly foster the preponderance of running’s media via drug allegations and court battles as athletes revert to any means necessary to get their piece of the restricted pie.  The athletes, in fact, do not have an advocate within the sport’s current bureaucracy, but instead are confronted with a competitor in whom they place no trust.

FROM ROZELLE TO RONO

While the world recovered from the devastation of World War II, and the nations of Africa were breaking the colonial bonds that had tied them to European powers since the Conference of Berlin in 1885, the First and Second World athletes dominated world competitions, much of it as a sublimation of Cold War antagonisms.  Throughout this time, African nations weren’t involved in organized world sport whatsoever – with the notable exception of Ethiopia in the person of Abebe Bikila, 1960 and `64 Olympic marathon champion.

The First and Second Worlds competed within a closed loop, much like American football and baseball do to this day (and American manufacturing did until the 1970s).  And organic heroes developed naturally from within this system.  Besides, sport in general wasn’t treated as a business by any sport.

However, since the end of colonial rule in Africa in the early 1960’s, even as the athletes from the newly independent nations began to emerge onto the world stage hungry for spoils, back in America a young advertising man, Pete Rozelle, was hired in 1960 to be commissioner of the National Football League.  The following year Rozelle designed federal legislation that permitted the sale of television broadcast rights to a single network for the entire league’s schedule rather than to numerous local broadcast outlets as individual games.

In the ensuing years these two forces, the spread of the track into all corners of the globe, and the application of business and marketing practices by American sports, conspired to separate track and running from the mainstream of American sporting life.  In 1988 at the Seoul Olympics, the emerging nations’ athletes, especially those from Kenya, came fully into their own, even as the Ben Johnson steroid scandal detonated public opinion in the face of track and field (and by extension all of running).

While the athletes continued to improve the standards of excellence set by previous generations, the natural star-building system of the pre-1968 Mexico City Olympics faltered as the Cold War ended, and track was no longer used as a rallying cry by political enemies.  And with no institutional support available from the homelands of these new champions to salute and promote their accomplishments, the need to forward this cause should have reverted, as a matter of course, to the sport’s umbrella organization, the IAAF.

But rather than stepping forward to buoy the international promotion of excellence and increasing prize purses to match other sports while the acceptance curve caught up worldwide, track officials focused, instead, on cheap talent and began touting fast times as the main attraction rather than the athletes, who they considered easily replaceable commodities.  As a consequence, these opposing shifts in athletic and marketing trends resulted in a devastating void in the public recognition of track and running (except for drug use).

With no one’s job in jeopardy by the current invisible, if not negative, public image of track and field and road running, with individual governing federations acting as semi-autonomous rogue states tying athletes to a form of athletic serfdom, and events locked in internecine battles throughout the globe out of sight of media attention, the anticipated consequences are evidenced in the humbled state of this sport.

Nick, it comes down to this: as long as the Olympic Games and World Championships remain the accepted pinnacle of athletic achievement – franchises owned and controlled by the IOC, IAAF, and their member Olympic committees and federations – individual athletes, whose short half-lives in the competitive arena and representation by a host of IAAF-sanctioned agents, will remain powerless to counteract this 19th century dynamic.

Consider the following: It took the top tennis professionals of their era – men like Rod Laver, Ken RosewallRoy Emerson, and Pancho Gonzales – six years (1963 to 1968) of boycotting the four tennis majors, while barnstorming on their own, before they broke the system and ushered in the open era.  And remember, Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 his last year in, and again in 1969 his first year back,  meaning he gave up 24 opportunities to play in the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in those six years. All for a cause he believed in.  So, Nick, are today’s track athletes willing to make that kind of personal sacrifice?  Show me an alternative, and I’ll write the press release.

“POWER NEVER TAKES A BACK STEP – ONLY IN THE FACE OF MORE POWER.”  Malcolm X

Sincerely,

A fan in the press box

END


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30 thoughts on “DEAR NICK SYMMONDS,

  1. Toni & Nick,
    Both articles are way overdue! Thanks for writing and making more people aware of the antiquated and selfish nature of the IAAF and the lack of concern for the Athletes, running is not a sport to the IAAF and IOC it is a business!!

    When the US and other countries can provide a stage to compete on that draws more sponsor dollars than the Olympics the athletes will vote with their participation or lack there of!!

    Thanks,
    Rob

  2. This reminds me of the Matt and Toni show week 11 with Matt Tegenkamp. (http://runnerville.com/2008/05/15/the-toni-matt-show-11/)

    The 2010 season was the season mentioned in the podcast. It has come and went and elite athletes are no better off than when the podcast was created in 2008. Hopefully Nick can get such talks among the elite running community circulating again and some action can be put into place.

    By the way, Runnerville was fantastic. I’d pay to subscribe to those podcasts if you got them up and running again. Any chance we’ll see something like in the future?

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  5. This is good stuff, Toni.

    Most track athletes have one main sponsor (a shoe company) and boycotting major meets or ducking competition would put an athlete in jeopardy of losing their one main sponsor, so that’s not a viable option unless the sponsor itself were to get in their corner, which isn’t going to happen since the shoe companies have nearly a monopoly on advertising right now.

    I think NASCAR is a good start for making progressive comparisons (especially considering their sport involves doing laps around a track for even longer). That’s a way to see the validity in taking sponsorships to the extreme.

    But we need to also look at football and basketball where the players show relatively few brand names on their clothes, but still get paid a mint. Those sports have more visibility and popularity (than track), so in turn the athletes get higher direct pay and the sponsorship deals aren’t a major burden for the athletes unless they want to supplement their incomes. They do it through being televised, putting fans in the stands, and playing games at regular, predictable intervals. Even football with only 16 games per season looks like a lot of regular games when you contrast that with your typical track star who does no more than 8 meets per year and on a sporadic schedule. It is difficult as a fan (at least in America) to have to personally track who is showing up to what meets and figure out how you’re going to view the meet (likely on the Internet at odd hours and for a cost beyond what you’re already paying for cable or satellite on your actual TV). When Major League Soccer started in America, there were few reasons why it should have done any better than a track league, but it fixed the ills of our international soccer play. It gave soccer a more regular schedule, local stands to fill, and television time. MLS may not come close to the NFL, but hundreds of athletes are getting a steady paycheck, which is more than can be said for track. But, track doesn’t even have to be like those league to get viewership. How is it that tennis, which glorifies individual accomplishment at least as much as track, has all of its major competitions aired on major networks often involving the play of two athletes for hours in a single episode?

    We have an excellent spirit among track athletes. It’s easy to get a big name to show up to a camp, running store, or school. The athletes are always willing to give kids motivation to stick with the sport. Between running full time and representing the sport, the athletes are doing about as much as can be expected from them. The college system (looking at popularity, not funding) is thriving fairly well as a result of interest in track, cross country, and field. And then the kids find there’s nowhere to go with the sport. There isn’t a minor league. There isn’t a developmental league. The top dozen college graduates get a short-term tolerable shoe deal and everyone else watches their PRs become archived in history while they’re out putting food on the table during a global recession. The disparity between the number of graduating college track athletes versus professional track athletes is evidence that the professional governing bodies are failing, not the athletes or the interest.

    • Joe,
      thanx for a well argued response. I am on my way to Chicago for this Sunday’s marathon. Will dig in to the conversation when I have settled.

  6. Hi Tony,

    You are wrong about it only impacting Nick. Allowing them to get that extra revenue gives them incentive to stay in the sport longer, to try and run faster, and go at it year after year. There’s less reason for a guy to stick around the sport if they could make more money out of it without all the phsyical effort. That said having corporate sponsorships of athletes make other companies more invested in track and field. The more money going into the sport, the greater the sport will become in the US.

  7. Why can’t a group of athletes go out and start their own meets, ala Pre? These athletes can still attempt to enter the USA Champs and Olympics and any other National or International competition. During these competitions they would have to adhere to USATF and IAAF rules, but during their own track series why couldn’t they do as they pleased? Wear a uniform with several sponsors, wear a uniform with one major sponsor (the coke bottle uniform idea I heard somewhere was a cool one) and promote and run the meet as they saw fit rather than as USATF, IAAF, or the diamond league saw fit. Would this put them at risk of breaking USATF and IAAF rules or do those only apply at USATF and IAAF comopetitions?

    I say we take a group of athletes and a group of interested parties and say screw Europe, screw the diamond league, screw everyone else, we’ll design the new track and field for pay while continuing to run in national and international competitions for our country but not for the federation.

  8. I believe the problem is much larger than Toni or Nick point out. The problem lies in the fact that most recreational runners are not fans of the sport. Why? Because the great majority of them never ran track on any level and took up running later in life to stay physically fit or to earn a check mark on their bucket lists. I have been running with a group of about 12 friends for more than 14 years. Almost all of them are considered to be serious runners with all of them having qualified for Boston on several ocassions and be top local age group racers. Besides me (I ran track in HS and college), not one of them could tell you anything about Bekele and Tyson Gay. A few of the females may know of Deena Kastor because she was signing autographs at the Boston Marathon expo. They also know of the Gouchers because Adam’s uncle runs with us. Otherwise, they don’t know or care about the sport. To them, the Boston Marathon is as good as the Olympics.

  9. Thanks for the well-articulated and balanced point of view. Nick’s point it not to be overlooked, but, both help the rest of us in the stands get a slightly clearer view of what’s going on in the press box.

  10. There is no fair share.
    Every $ the shoe companies put into sponsorship is complete charity or an excuse for these little people (running shoe managers, agents, etc) to pretend like they’re “professionals”.

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  12. Toni, your site is a nice platform to discuss this issue, but like you mention it’s about the IAAF and the federations that really decide things. The feds chose the IAAF-president, so he supports them as you stated.
    I experencied the same once in our own fed (I’m European). I came to a councilmeeting (the club-elected representatives in the federation) and saw that they were more into this like club-competition, financial issues to clubs, etc.

    One of the issues/problems in t&f is that the professional athletes aren’t organised. Regarding the WR in the marathon debate. None of the pro-athletes decide to boycot the big races. All the athletes put on their bib, laced their shoes and started, only commenting in the media on how poor the decision was. There isn’t any solidarity at all.
    In tennis, the biggest stars are the spokespersons of the players. Djokovic, Murray recently try to change the competition schedule, talk to organisers and act in the ATP or WTA. Even disagreeing players won’t argue on this matter and fit in. The USA prosports have a strike almost more often than ‘strike-loving’ country France, regarding contract, financial issues, sponsorship contracts.
    In t&f you won’t see anything on that. Athletes ‘causing trouble’ are banned by the IAAF or meetorganisers and the gap on the starting line is easily filled by a guy eager to earn a few $$. If all marathoners decide not to start a fall marathon this year or even better, boycot the IAAF/EA events like worldcross, -indoor or -halfmarathon, those in charge will more easily be tempted to change their view.

    • As in any movement, it will require guts, leadership, and dedication to principle to change a long-standing, inequitable status quo. As always, the powers-that-be will try to marginalize the agents of change. However, there are innumerable examples throughout history of men and women who have finally gotten fed up enough to make a stand, and demand meaningful change. Will the sport of track and field be the latest to make that stand? That is the question that lingers? Only the current crop of athletes, bolstered by their predecessors and supporters, can deliver the answer. Nick Symmonds has taken a first tentative step by speaking out. Does this movement have legs? The road ahead will tell.

  13. i agree with a lot of what is said..but track is not like other sports,golf,tennis,rugby,etc these really are first world sports,track is third world now that is where the expansion is where the stars are coming from,the IAAF know this and can avail of a sea of disposable talent at very little cost,europeans and americans don’t matter as much anymore..

  14. Anonymous, whoever you are you make a very good point…the track and field stars, including of course those who race on the roads, hail from third-world countries. The IAAF takes full advantage of that reality. The federation(s) don’t have to respond to any of the criticism being leveled at them; incredible talent is there, coming mostly from under-developed nations. When an American or European “star” emerges, it’s an anomaly.

    • And yet, American/European runners who are able to compete with the East Africans are more highly valued by certain markets. I’ll bet Ryan Hall got a higher appearance fee in Chicago than Mosop did, and who has heard of Bekana Daba, the man finishing in fourth ahead of Hall? My point is that the large pool of incredible talent from third world countries does not make American/European stars disposable, or eliminate their value.

      You’re right that the IAAF seems safe for the time being in taking advantage of its athletes, but this isn’t because the Americans are getting beat on the track. It’s because a zero-sum atmosphere of antagonism and distrust is maintained between athletes which prevents the communication, mobilization, and group action which would be necessary in order for them to exert their collective leverage on the IAAF.

      Certainly the cultural and geographic diversity of top athletes contributes to the difficulties of getting the lines of communication open. But American and/or European athletes alone have plenty of collective bargaining power, and what prevents them from mobilizing it effectively is not that they are made disposable by the presence of other top athletes, but that the cooperation and mutual sacrifice required in order to take a stand has thus far proved elusive.

      I love the comparison with tennis. It’s a hard fight, but possible!

      • there is a niche market for american/european athletes of course for reasons other than their athletic prowess..le maitre the french sprinter can command higher apperance fees than some of his opponents not because he is superior but he is white and a novelty in sprinting circles,with the globalisation of sport the dominance that the american/europeans maintained will no longer be,not only on the ground but in administration…that is when the real change will come..

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