Paris 2024: Track and field to be first Olympic sport with prize money

Paris 2024: Track and field to be first Olympic sport with prize money

This summer, Olympic track and field champions for the first time in history will take home more than gold medals — they’ll also pocket a $50,000 cash prize.

The modern Olympic Games for years have basked in the purity of amateur competition where athletes compete for love of the game and national pride, not financial incentives. But after more than 125 years, the international governing body of track and field decided it was time its sport’s Olympic champions were paid.

World Athletics on Wednesday announced its “landmark decision” to award the prize money to every gold medal-winning athlete in each of the 48 track and field events in Paris (relay teams will share the prize).

Silver and bronze medal-winning athletes will receive tiered cash prizes starting with the 2028 summer games in Los Angeles, the federation said in a statement.

“While it is impossible to put a marketable value on winning an Olympic medal, or on the commitment and focus it takes to even represent your country at an Olympic Games, I think it is important we start somewhere and make sure some of the revenue generated by our athletes at the Olympic Games are directly returned to those who make the Games the global spectacle that it is,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said in a statement Wednesday.

The prize money for track and field comes out the share of Olympic revenue that the IOC distributes to World Athletics.

The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday said 90 percent of its income is redistributed to the National Olympic Committees of each country and the international federations that govern each sport, which then decide how to use the funds.

“This means that, every day, the equivalent of USD $4.2 million goes to help athletes and sports organizations at all levels around the world,” a spokesperson for the IOC said in a statement. “It is up to each [international federation] and [National Olympic Committee] to determine how to best serve their athletes and the global development of their sport.

World Athletics’ move comes amid on ongoing shift in the world of amateur sports. In the U.S., the NCAA more than two years ago approved a policy that allows student-athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness. The change has been clearest in high-level college football and basketball, where collegiate booster groups can pay star players through sometimes-lucrative NIL deals.

When the modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896, athletes were required to be amateurs; anyone who had ever made money while competing was prohibited from Olympic participation. For nearly the next 100 years, Olympic athletes continued to compete largely for love of the game.

That changed in 1992 thanks to then-IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who had a more modern vision of sports, said Matthew Andrews, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who focuses on sports and politics.

“[Samaranch] believed global sports spectators wanted to see the best athletes in sports — and those were professional athletes,” Andrews said.

“We want to see Michael Phelps every four years and watch him grow up; we want to see Usain Bolt come back and defend his title, to see Simone Biles,” Andrews said.

At 1992 summer games in Barcelona, the doors to Olympics were thrown open to the pros, bringing global audiences powerhouse athletes, most memorably the Michael Jordan-led American men’s basketball squad dubbed “The Dream Team” that was stacked with NBA stars.

The lone federation to hold out on welcoming professionals at the time was boxing.

“[The International Boxing Federation] thought a professional athlete might kill an amateur athlete,” Andrews said. As of the 2016 games, professional boxers may compete in the Olympics.

While sponsorships are typically the only source of income for Olympic athletes, medal winners are often compensated by their country, though the amounts vary. At rescheduled summer games in Tokyo in 2021, the U.S. Olympic Committee paid $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for a silver and $15,000 for a bronze — amounts that sit on the lower end of cash incentives globally.

Singapore pays the highest, offering $737,000 to a gold medal winner. The island nation has only had one gold medalist, swimmer Joseph Schooling who won it in 2016.

For athletes who compete in sports that don’t have professional leagues and who don’t take the podium at the Olympics, finances can be precarious.

“That’s why for a long time we didn’t see people compete in more than one Olympics — you had to get a ‘real’ job,” Andrews said.

Andrews said as much as the Olympics props up the ideal of amateurism, brands and other businesses have always found ways to pass cash top athletes.

“People were always making money,” Andrews said, noting that World Athletics is just formalizing a backdoor practice. “This is just more a frank realization and bringing it out in the open.”

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