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Cash-Strapped Track and Field Athletes Still Fighting to Unionize

Professional track athletes like Adam Nelson and Nick Symmonds want to protect athletes' rights during the Olympics.
Photo by James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

After making his first Olympic team at the U.S. Track & Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, last weekend, decathlete Jeremy Taiwo was eager to talk not only about the swiftness of his sprint or the ease with which he threw the discus but also about organized labor and athletes' rights.

Although Taiwo is one of the top competitors in the world in his event, like many athletes bound for Rio he made it on a shoestring budget, often working several jobs and receiving subsidies from friends, family, and governing bodies. The hustle isn't easy, even when you're the best in your sport—and the governing bodies surrounding track and field, athletes say, don't make things any easier.


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Unlike their peers in soccer, football, or baseball, professional track and field athletes are not unionized. That has left them without a seat at the table for discussions covering everything from drug testing to negotiating salaries and competition calendars, they say. It's something that many athletes at Hayward Field last week said they were trying to change, particularly as they find themselves often at odds with the International Olympic Committee and the International Association of Athletic Federations, the international governing body for track, on core issues.

At the top of the list is sponsorship. Many athletes, including Taiwo, point to the IOC's Rule 40, which limits how they can mention their sponsors during the Olympics, as part of what hampers their ability to make a living.

"We saw people in the Los Angeles Games a generation ago and they were able to wear Ford, Tyson, whatever was on them," Taiwo said, referring to the 1984 Summer Olympics. "And that was really cool. People can do that in Formula One racing and NASCAR, and it shows that people want to support. Obviously, it's good publicity for the companies, but as the market keeps shifting away from multi-eventers"—like those who compete in less-visible sports like the decathlon and heptathlon—"it's going to be really tough for this thing to keep holding on."


These aren't the only hurdles athletes need to go over to get to Rio. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Rule 40 is a longstanding part of the Olympic Charter that has come under increasing criticism as the IOC's fortunes have ballooned, largely due to swelling television broadcast and marketing deals of the past decade. That bounty, athletes rights advocates argue, has not been shared with those on stage who make the Games possible. Because of agreements the IOC has with exclusive sponsors, athletes and coaches under Rule 40 have a window before, during and after the Games in which they are prohibited from adding additional logos to their apparel or mentioning sponsors by name, including on social media platforms.

That makes an already small opportunity for taking advantage of a moment on the global stage even smaller, critics say. Shortly after winning her gold medal at the London 2012 Games in the 400 meters, Sanya Richards-Ross, one of the sport's most visible faces, called it "exploitation." (Richards-Ross did not finish her race at Trials this year due to an injury.)

It's not the first time such issues have come up in track. One of Hayward Field's most famous stars, Steve Prefontaine, railed against the Amateur Athletic Union in the 1970s over its definition of "amateurism," criticizing the group for not permitting athletes to be paid for appearances at track meets and therefore substantially hampering their ability to earn a living from the sport. Shortly after Prefontaine's death in a car accident, Congress passed the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. The act provided athletes a somewhat improved legal framework by not requiring amateurism for international competition, thus allowing them to earn prize money and appearance fees at races and pursue endorsement opportunities.


Yet since then, track and field has fallen behind, says Adam Nelson, a gold medalist in the shot put and the current president of the Track & Field Athletes Association, a nonprofit group that supports athletes' rights and interests. A number of athletes, including Nelson, joined the TFAA after the 2012 Olympics.

One of the association's first steps was to meet with the unions for professional leagues to try and figure out ways to make track and field less dependent on the Olympics. Much of the sport's visibility and finances depend on Olympic-level exposure, making it difficult for athletes to bargain with leadership there, Nelson said. Ideally, he envisions that track and field could have a circuit similar to what the PGA and LPGA Tours do for golf or the ATP and WTA does for tennis. He also pointed to the National Hockey League as a strong governing body with a union that generally worked with the Olympic calendar to ensure that athletes could have the best of all worlds (although the NHL is threatening not to send players to the 2018 Games over a disagreement with the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation about costs).

Nelson said he found many parties—including the U.S. Olympic Committee, the U.S. Track & Field Association, and large sponsors of the sport—were receptive to the TFAA and its ideas. But an attempt to have a June 2013 meeting with the IOC regarding Rule 40 failed, he said, as the organization cancelled at the last minute. Momentum, Nelson said, has since stalled. (A spokesperson for the IOC didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.)


Around the same time, TFAA's funding was running low. Nelson said the organization has stopped taking new members and dues as they're currently rethinking the scope of their mission. It's not a traditional union in the sense that membership is not required for athletes, or that it plays a role in the negotiation of contracts with sponsors and leagues; coordinating that reality is still a long way off, Nelson said. Much of his group's support was contingent on being able to meet with IOC members regarding Rule 40, and they still haven't been able to do that. Some athletes are more on board with joining the group than others. "We've hit the reset button," Nelson said.

It's also made for some difficult conversations with athletes, he said. "Unless people are willing to sacrifice something"—like, say, appearing at a particular competition, going on strike, or foregoing the terms of a sponsorship—"that's not going to change."

Nick Symmonds has been an outspoken advocate for athletes' rights. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

A number of recent incidents have highlighted the plight of track athletes. Last year, Nick Symmonds, the American national champion in the 800 meters and a longtime opponent of Rule 40, was left off the World Championships team over a dispute involving apparel requirements. American team members are required to wear Nike, the team's official sponsor, in competition, but Symmonds is sponsored by rival Brooks. Although many athletes have different sponsors year-round, most agree to wear Nike gear when competing for USATF; Symmonds wanted to wear his Brooks gear and refused to sign USATF's paperwork. In January, Symmonds' company, Run Gum, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the federation with the hope that Run Gum athletes could wear the company's logo at the Olympic trials. A judge dismissed the case in May.


This summer, the US Olympic Committee updated its guidelines for IOC Rule 40: for the first time, companies that are not official Olympic sponsors can feature Olympic athletes on some advertising during the Games. The change, however, comes with many caveats, and the ad campaigns must be approved by the USOC via a waiver process that some of the smaller brands sponsoring athletes say they may not be able to afford.

Transparency has also proven to be an issue. Most athletes rely on three sources of income: appearance fees, prize money, and sponsorship deals. Late last year, the USTF announced a new revenue distribution plan that will pay out $9 million of federation revenues to athletes over the next five years; athletes who make Olympic or outdoor world championship teams will earn $10,000 each. But the opacity of shoe and apparel contracts, typically the lifeblood of a track and field athlete's earnings, creates confusion about what athletes are worth and, at times, what the terms of the contracts are.

Earlier this year, for example, American middle-distance star Boris Berian was sued by Nike when the company claimed that the runner had breached his contract—specifically, their right to retain him with a matching offer—after he declined to sign with them and went to rival New Balance instead. Nike dropped the case last month, but not before turning Berian into a symbol for athletes' rights.


"It's less about compensation as much as player control," Nelson said. "If you look at other sports, the players become a value-added stakeholder in the governance structure. Sure, there are fights all the time, but each group is represented. It's not just a challenge for track and field, but for Olympic sports in general. We're a huge part of why there are such a thing as the Olympic Games, but there is no one who really wants to empower the athlete to have even the littlest ownership of the pie."

The IOC does have an Athletes' Commission, Nelson said, but "they have no real control. There are good people involved, they just haven't been empowered to be able to make decisions that are legally binding."

Adam Nelson at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Aside from the Olympics, track and field has struggled to lure the big broadcast dollars that have helped salaries in other professional sports balloon. "It's hard to go into a sponsor and say, 'We have a non-revenue-generating sport that doesn't have a business model, that doesn't make a lot of money off the event, but we don't have television money,'" Nelson said. Counting on financial backing of a non-existent circuit void of television exposure, he added, is a "tough sell."

In the meantime, athletes have no other choice but to continue to make do. Laura Thweatt, who competed in the 10,000-meters and finished fifth at trials, has two jobs outside of training, one working at a running retail store her coach owns and coaching at a high school in Boulder, Colorado. "There are a lot of track and field athletes like that," Thweatt said. "They work full time jobs and make it to this level, which is amazing."

Kellyn Taylor, who also competed in the 10,000 meters, said that she had yet to formally join the TFAA, "but I admire the people who do. Someone needs to step up and speak up," she said. "There are a lot of things that need to be fixed and that other people need to be aware of."

Taylor said she regularly is on airplanes and met with perplexed stares when she says that she's a professional runner. "Almost every single time, they're like, 'Oh, that's a thing?' I say, 'Yeah, that's a thing.' The people that go to the Olympics, that's their job. It's not like they walk outside of Wal-Mart and decide to run 5,000 meters crazy fast. They're training day in and day out."

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