When I was young and watching the sport, I thought it would be wonderful if track athletes could actually make a living in track and field like they could in other sports. As I watched athletes struggle to find training time as they worked full time jobs to pay the bills and put food on the table, I thought, "wouldn't it be great if running could pay the bills?".
But after roughly 20 years of professionalism in the sport, I wonder if we've done it "right". After all, two decades is plenty of time to develop and tweak a "product". But looking at track and field, we're nothing like the other professional sports when it comes to our athletes getting paid.
Somehow, while other sports have actual salary structures, we've attempted to become professional by retaining the amateur pay model of appearance fees, mixed with a few hefty contracts from the shoe companies. Now this works very well if you are the number one athlete in your event - maybe even number two or three. I mean, Usain Bolt is making crazy money right now. Mo Greene made a healthy living. Michael Johnson and Marion Jones too.
But when one athlete picks up a check for a quarter million or half million dollars from one meet (and I'm not "hatin" him for it) there's not much money left for everyone else! Which leads to a lot of problems.
For starters it leads to a sport divided among the "Well to Do" and the "Struggling" - and this sport has far too many athletes struggling to eek out an existence. Consider the 100 meter final in Berlin. Usain Bolt is extremely "well to do". Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell are "well to do". The remaining finalists, however, (Daniel Bailey, Richard Thompson, Dwain Chambers, Marc Burns, and Darvis Patton) fall into the category of working hard to try and make a living in spite of the fact that all have PR's well under 10.00 and only one was slower than that in the World Championships final!
Can you imagine being among the EIGHT best in the world at your position in any other professional sport on the planet and yet you may have trouble paying the bills? Yet that is exactly the situation a large percentage of track and field athletes find themselves in - Olympic and World finalists; among the best in the world at what they do; yet struggling to make a decent living!
And the non medalists aren't the only one's affected by the huge discrepancies in appearance fees. Sticking with the sprints, if you are Tyson Gay or Asafa Powell, you have to think twice about running in a meet featuring Usain Bolt - and its not necessarily about having to face him on the track. You see when a meet promoter pays an ungodly fee to Mr. Bolt, just what does that leave for Mr. Gay or Mr. Powell? The answer is:not what either feels he should be earning for his days work! So the answer is to find a meet where "you" can be the featured athlete! And though you may not command a Boltian fee, you do get the opportunity to get paid much closer to your own market value. The result is that we find it difficult to find top level fields in the sprints outside of major championships - primarily for financial reasons! A very frustrating proposal for most of us fans whose mouths water at the thought of high level sprint showdowns, yet who are mostly frustrated at how infrequently the top sprinters are brought together on the track!
Even when athletes are able to earn "big money" in the sport it doesn't seem to translate to the track. For example it seems that when the shoe companies hand out the large contracts to what seem to be budding young stars, progress seems to stall or even stop! Sort of like when athletes in other professional sports are in the last year of their contracts. That final season we get great performances; the athlete signs a huge new contract; and then the level of performance drops dramatically. More than once I've seen athletes like Xavier Carter, Alan Webb, Walter Dix and others, get huge shoe deals only to stall out and fall on hard times. While, in the meantime, we watch "struggling" athletes like Mike Rodgers, Ivory Williams, Alonzo Edwards and Steve Mulling make major strides internationally without benefit of "adequate compensation".
My point to all this is that the sport really needs to take a look at some sort of restructuring if it is to truly survive long term. It's great that a Usain Bolt can earn top dollar. But if we can't get the guys in the other 7 lanes paid adequately we will end up with Bolt running alone - and that won't be fun for anyone! As I said previously regarding performances, the sport needs at least a dozen Usain Bolt's. Likewise when it comes to getting athletes paid we could use a couple dozen Usain Bolt's - with a salary structure that would allow for compensation of the rest much more in line with their competitive abilities!
So, while I know that we are still a ways away from making New Year's resolutions, this will be high on my list for 2010 - that the sport take a serious look at how it's athletes are being paid and seriously attempts to rectify the severe inequality that exists.