ATHLETICS’ SISYPHEAN TASK

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.

Sisyphus by Titan

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. Continue reading