It is perhaps the most Sisyphean of athletics’ challenges, the movement to truly modernize the sport of athletics (track & field). Over the years, the boulder of professionalism has approached its summit on a number of occasions, only to see its fortunes tumble back down to the old status quo time and again.
It’s as if the athletes were being punished for their sport’s leaders’ “self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness”, as was Sisyphus. Yet the primary impediment to change has been the gravity of tradition, the weight of Olympic amateurism that defined the birth of organized sport in Victorian times and the consequent power vested in the federations-based model that grew to dominate the sport cradle-to-grave in the ensuing hundred-plus years.
Attempts have been made to challenge the old order. In 1972, the International Track Association initiated a circuit of events in the USA and Canada featuring a coterie of well-known though aging stars. But the new association found itself unable to sign the stars coming out of the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games because the “amateurs” could still make more money from under-the-table appearance fees on the federation-led tour than they could as “professionals” in open prize money events on the new ITA circuit.
Then, in the early 1980s when road racing in America was in its first boom stage, the top road racers attempted a breakaway under the auspices of the Association of Road Race Athletes (ARRA). Their attempt at creating an independent circuit for professional road racing was eventually smothered in the cradle after the U.S. federation negotiated a semantic accommodation called TACTRUST which, though allowing the athletes to keep their winnings, retained the veil of amateur eligibility and federation control.
That temporary solution proved sufficient for the athletes of that era, but it left the old system in place and kept the sport from breaking free of its amateur chrysalis and perhaps taking flight as a truly professional sport.
In the meantime, the hallmark of the international system continued to be its inherent paternalism, a system that treated athletes first like serfs in feudal bondage and then as independent contractors without the collective bargaining power to determine their own fate via a more balanced system.
The persistence of financial corruption and self-dealing by past leaders of this federations-based system has been the one through-line that has defined its rule. And now under new leadership, the system’s solution to track’s shrinking viewer base is the elimination of events to reduce the sports’ TV window from two hours to ninety minutes.
Once again the IAAF is missing the forest for the trees. They think excising the 200, the steeplechase, the discus, and the triple jump is the answer to diminished viewership. The IAAF arrived at the decision, they say, via online voting and research, the idea being to improve its TV product with a faster-moving format.
All deadline writers have had editors like that, who just cut from the bottom till they get the right word count. Never mind the cogency of the article.
But it isn’t the events that people come to see. It’s the stars and rivalries competing in those events. The events are the frames used to display the competition. If you give the people something worth watching that they can relate to, they’ll stay for two hours, they do for every other sport.
But by arbitrarily cutting the triple jump you lose the Christian Taylor – Will Claye rivalry, two former University of Florida Gator stars going after a long-standing world record. Lose the 200 and you diminish Noah Lyles the closest thing you say you’ve got to Usain Bolt.
It is worth noting that every other sport that made the transition from an amateur past to an open or professional future necessitated an athlete boycott to signal the turning. Enough consequential athletes said NO! to the status quo until, after having designed an alternative competition, the two warring sides came into accord under a new more mutually balanced arrangement.
To date, athletics has failed to cohere around such a change movement, with the leaders of any opposition hoping instead to somehow convince or cajole the powers that be to simply alter the balance of power within the current construct.
Last week it was announced that top British athletes are threatening to sue the British Olympic Association over sponsorship restrictions. Athletes like Mo Farah, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Laura Muir and Adam Gemili are among those listed as claimants in a legal letter sent to the BOA. Athletes competing in the Olympics are currently bound by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ‘Rule 40’, which states that only approved sponsors may reference “Olympic-related terms”.
But this approach just continues to uphold the standing of the bodies that suppress the athletes. The kids are still asking Daddy to increase their allowance, rather than going out and finding the means to fund their own projects.
As just one example of how systems do change, St. Louis Cardinals baseball player Curt Flood refused to accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season, a refusal which eventually led to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down baseball’s reserve clause which tied players to their teams in perpetuity.
In looking at the current makeup of athletics’ component parts, athletes, events and federations, the only component not to have become institutionalized, not to have an organization that stands up for its best interests is the athletes. And as long as the athletes remain atomized as independent contractors, any power they might wield collectively can never be leveraged against the power structure that holds them in servitude. Instead they remain a unit of measure to those in charge, with any single disruptor easily replaced.
There is no secret formula. It is power against power with the greater force prevailing. And it’s only because it threatens to reshape the current power centers that any such movement gets pilloried and put down.
But just look where the current model has taken the sport. What’s next, keep waiting until they announce the cancellation of entire Diamond League schedule to boost TV ratings? Or, return the steeplechase to the Diamond League after the athletes accept crocodiles in the water jump to boost TV ratings and discus throwers get added to Olympic shooting program as substitute trap target casters?
What the athletes need more than an understanding by the current power structure is their own self-regulated tour, like the PGA Tour in golf or the ATP Tour in tennis, a tour which will be a viable alternative to the current IAAF Diamond League. Then, like the American Football League vis-a-vis the NFL in the 1960s and the ABA vis-a-vis the NBA in the 1970s, show enough growth until you can negotiate a new architecture that more evenly represents the athletes views and contributions with the older base.
I really don’t know what he’s promoting these days, but with the IAAF eliminating one of his signature events from next year’s Diamond League Tour – the 200 meters- maybe this is the time for Usain Bolt to attach himself to a cause in search of a high-wattage leader.
Though two-time Olympic and four-time World triple jump champion Christian Taylor has announced the formation of The Athletics Association, a fledgling organization for professional athletes – and Taylor is scheduled to meet with IAAF President Sebastian Coe later this week in Monaco – it might take someone as widely recognized beyond the sport as Usain Bolt to lead the way out of this continuously shrinking wilderness.
Perhaps with his own legacy being diminished by the latest attempt to make the sport more palatable to an ignoring public, Bolt might seize the moment and use the power of his personality to rally the athletes and the public to a truly just and long overdue cause.
Come on, Usain. You elevated the game when you were on the track. Time to change the game for the next generation now that you’ve left it. I’m sure Christian Taylor would be anxious to take your call to help get that rock rolling back up the hill again.