by Penny Werthner Baies
“To succeed at the highest level these days is so time-and energy-consuming in terms of the preparation required (it’s almost impossible now to find a world-beating athlete holding down a full-time job), that the approach has to be a professional one. So, too, would be the rewards for success.”
Mel Watson, Athletics Weekly, May 16,1981.
This question of ‘rewards’, or more specifically, the debate about ‘open’ athletics (‘open’ meaning that an athlete could legally receive money for competing) is presently raging within the sport of track and field. Significant changes could have an effect not only on track and field, but on other Olympics sports which are in some ways troubled by similar problems, sports such as alpine skiing and ice hockey.
Most track and field athletes who compete in Europe on the international circuit and on the North American indoor circuit, their coaches, and the meet promoters are involved in so-called ‘under-the-table’ payments. For example, Geoff Capes, a world class British shot putter, now retired, states in his book on his competitive career that he received up to $1250 for a meet. Dwight Stones, the American high jumper, said several years ago that he had received money from meet promoters. And then there was the report in the French sport newspaper, l’Equipe, which stated that Sebastian Coe, world record holder in 800 m and the mile, requested $20,000 to run in a Paris meet this past summer.
It is a fact that presently, and for the past several years, athletes in track and field have been paid to compete. There is a ‘going rate’ for the appearance of an Olympic champion, a European champion, a world record holder, and so on. There is prize money in most meetings. Payment is made in several different ways, but it is cash, and it is illegal under the present rules.
In my opinion, the present rules are out of date and, in order to make track and field honest, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) must revise the rules. This is what seems to be happening.
Prior to the Moscow Olympic Games (remember — the Games that Canadian athletes did not have the chance to compete in) — the IAAF Council appointed a working group to study eligibility. The group’s aim was to study the practicality and application of the present rules and propose a set of recommendations. Here, in brief, are some of those recommendations.
It was felt that realistic rules had to be introduced in order to keep the sport unified and were the only way the IAAF and the National Federations could regain control of the sport.
It was proposed that the term ‘amateur’ should be deleted from the rules. The IAAF Council did not agree with this proposal and countered that a new definition should be introduced. I agree with the working group that the term ‘amateur’ should be dropped. It would be better if athletes could openly benefit from their work, without having to cheat or lie.
It was proposed that support such as “loss of earning”, “scholarships”, and “trust funds” could be increased, with the Federations being responsible for their control.
Athletes would be able to capitalize financially on their fame through advertisements, endorsements and business interests, but this would again be controlled by the Federations, which would take a percentage. I think allowing athletes to gain revenue from advertising contracts, etc., could be a good source of income for both the athlete and the sport.
The working group also proposed various controls over the international meetings where most of the illegal payments take place. For example, it was recommended that all meet organizers deal only with the National Federations, and not directly with the athlete. (This is perhaps a good idea, but in some cases, if an athlete had to wait for his/her Federation to act before being able to compete internationally, they would have few competitions).
The working group agreed upon a controlled prize money system setting an upper limit of $1000 per event. Again, the money would not go directly to the athlete, but to the Federation, with the Federation taking a percentage. However, the IAAF Council felt that if money payments were to be made, it would be better in the form of ‘appearance’ money with athletes, such as Olympic champions, receiving money for appearing, regardless of how he/she places in the competition. While I agree that a ruling on appearance money is necessary, I do think that, for most athletes, the main source of possible income would be prize money. I do not believe, however, that there should be an upper limit. One thousand dollars is not a realistic figure considering what some top athletes can now command in appearance money. Remember, too, that at present, all money is under-the-table and, therefore, tax free. If athletics goes open, then the payments would be declared and taxable, and if the legitimate rewards are not adequate, then under-the-table payments would start up again.
The working group’s proposals are reasonable recommendations for a very necessary and immediate change in rules of athletics. It is now up to the IAAF to act upon them.
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