Historic Shift: World Athletics to Award Olympic Prize Money, Champions Athlete Compensation

Editorial – Jamaica Observer

Paying Olympians is long overdue

World Athletics’ announcement on Wednesday that it will become the first international federation to award prize money at an Olympic Games, beginning at this year’s staging in Paris, France, has been welcomed by the athletics community.

Track and field stars Usain Bolt and Andre De Grasse

According to World Athletics President Lord Sebastian Coe, gold medal winners in each of the 48 athletics events in Paris will receive US$50,000.

Prize money, Lord Coe pointed out, will be extended to the winners of silver and bronze medals at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Explaining that the decision reflected the efforts of track and field athletes “which attract billions of eyeballs” to TV coverage of the Olympics, Lord Coe said on Wednesday: “I don’t believe this is remotely at variance with the concept that the International Olympic Committee often talks about, which is recognising the efforts that our competitors make for the overall success of the Games.”

We are not surprised by the general response to what is really a gesture from World Athletics to athletes, because that is really what it is when compared to what men and women engaged in other sports are paid.

We acknowledge the tradition that the Olympics is about the honour of representing your country, the valour of competition, and the Games’ great benefit of promoting an exchange of cultures. However, we are all too familiar with the many stories of athletes who, after making enormous sacrifice, have little to show, in terms of financial reward, and are denied the dignity of a decent life.

That is one reason that we now see athletes, well at least the better ones, being paid by sponsors, resulting in the Olympic tradition of amateur competition consigned to history. So it was only natural for World Athletics to change with the times.

The fact is that sport generates tens of trillions of dollars worldwide. The owners of teams and those who sell television broadcast rights rake in huge portions of that pie. So too do venues that host competitions, sports goods manufacturers, and companies that offer expertise in sports marketing.

Forbes Magazine report last year telling us that the world’s 50 most valuable sports teams are worth a combined US$256 billion — an average of US$5.12 billion — 15 per cent more than in 2022.

Statista, the data-gathering online platform, shows that as of December 2022, Portuguese footballer Mr Cristiano Ronaldo had the highest salary of all football players worldwide — an estimated US$200 million a year.

Mr Lionel Messi, the Argentine football World Cup champion, earned around US$65 million a year, as well as US$55 million in off-field income.

Salaries in the American NFL, the English Premier League, and other top sports leagues are huge by any standard. Also, spin-off revenue from those leagues is spread far and wide.

Track and field, though, has never provided that level of earning for athletes, regardless of the interest generated globally by the Olympics and World Championships.

Lord Coe is therefore correct in describing this decision as “a pivotal moment for the sport of athletics as a whole”.