Olympic track and field seeing dollar signs with splashy cash infusions into the sport

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — One aspiring Olympian is taking a break from his day job at the deli section while he makes his run for Paris. Another athlete worked as a nanny, but when she left to focus on running at the Games, the family understood.

When these runners and hurdlers learned they would be racing for a big, fat first-prize check worth $50,000 to go with the gold medal at this summer's Olympics, they were, understandably, excited.

“That’d be big,” American hurdler Dylan Beard said this week at U.S. track and field trials, while taking a break from his job at the Walmart Supercenter in Wake Forest, North Carolina. “I mean, I wouldn’t even know what to do with that much money.”

In a move that many in track — and the Olympic world, in general — felt was long overdue, World Athletics, the governing body for track, announced earlier this year that there would be a first-of-its-kind cash prize available for all of track and field's winners in Paris. That's a prize pool of $2.4 million spread across 48 events.

That move, combined with the recent rapid-fire introduction of track meets featuring enhanced prize pools — and even a new track league fronted by sprinting great Michael Johnson — represents the biggest publicly touted cash infusion into the sport in decades.

It could be a lifeline for track athletes, who have struggled for attention since Usain Bolt left the spotlight.

The sport has seen a widening gulf between haves — such as Noah Lyles, Sha'Carri Richardson and Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone — and the have-nots since the heyday of the 1980s. That's when the likes of Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and Jackie Joyner-Kersee were mainstream stars who could often be seen on the track in the day, then on “The Tonight Show” at night.

For Olympic steeplechaser Evan Jager, who won silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, a current ESPN documentary about former sprinter Butch Reynolds, who starred in the sport in the ‘80s and early ’90s, highlighted one key difference between today and yesteryear.

“It was like $70K for some of the appearance" fees for running in meets, Jager said. “Granted, he was at the top of the sport at the time, but you don’t hear too many athletes getting that much money in appearance fees (today) at some of these meets.”

Johnson's Grand Slam Track league will sign athletes to actual contracts, then add appearance fees for some others, with plans to bring 96 runners together four times a year to compete for $100,000 first-place prizes. (Some field athletes are, predictably, upset at not being included in the rollout, but Johnson says he's taking things one step at a time.) Johnson touted a $12.6 million prize pool and said he had secured more than $30 million to bankroll the league, which will start in 2025.

In addition to the $50,000 first prizes for the Olympics, World Athletics this month announced the start of the Ultimate Championship in 2026, which will bring together the best in the sport to compete for a prize pot of $10 million and first prizes worth $150,000.

Also, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian recently went public with plans for an all-women's track meet in September that will feature Olympic silver and bronze medalist Gabby Thomas and promised the largest purse ever for a female-only track meet.

All of this looks like progress to three-time Olympic medalist Brittney Reese, who is not competing but remains active in the track community.

“We’re not going to get paid like the NBA or the NFL, but we are a professional sport and we do deserve to get paid,” Reese said. “I trained 11 months out of the year, so I’m pretty sure some of these athletes do the same.”

It's the reason well-worn stories about athletes raising funds at car washes and bake sales, and getting side jobs at coffee shops and hardware stores, become so popular every Olympic year.

Or why it's not uncommon to see someone like Allie Wilson, who is heading to the Olympics in the 800 meters, take a nanny job to make ends meet before she peels off to focus on her training.

“Our sport is definitely growing and they’re doing a lot more to help us athletes,” Wilson said. “But for me, this was, like, for all the glory, I wanted to be an Olympian my entire life, and I knew it was going to take everything I had in me to get there.”

This push in track comes at an especially pivotal time, given the Summer Olympics are returning to the United States in 2028 — namely, the Coliseum in Los Angeles, which used to be the mecca for the sport — for the first time in a generation.

Two years ago, when world championships were held in America for the first time, World Athletics President Seb Coe made a point of spelling out his goal of turning track back into a top-four sport in the U.S.

"For the games to really work, the U.S. needs a really powerful track and field presence,” Coe said in a 2022 interview.

LA organizers doubled down on that by bucking tradition and moving it to the start of the Games instead of the second week where it had been since 1972.

“Athletics is our prime-time event,” LA28 chairman Casey Wasserman said. “We’re starting off with a bang. That Saturday night, we’re going to have world-class athletics at the Coliseum. It’s going to really create a lot of energy and excitement.”

By then, America and the world will have a better idea about whether all these attempts to put more money in the pockets of track athletes has moved the sport back into the big time.

For these Olympics, at least, the days of running for pride, country, a gold medal and the hope of a big endorsement deal are over. There will be real money on the line in Paris.

“That $50,000 for gold is definitely a good step,” American long jumper Marquis Dendy said. “I would say that there is room for more improvement, but that’s a really good step.”


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