Track & Field Union Sends Shockwaves Through Olympic Sports World

Braden Keith
by Braden Keith 10

September 21st, 2012 Industry, News

Today, track & field athletes around the world announced their intent to form an international union to increase their earnings potential in the mega-money athletics and Olympic industry: a move that could be the first domino to fall in growing displeasure with the Olympic revenue model and specifically how it pertains to athletes.

The union has already been endorsed by some of Track & Field’s biggest athletes, including arguably the most popular Olympic athlete in the world Usain Bolt – the World Record holder in the 100m dash – and Sonya Richards-Ross – the 400m Olympic Champion. For reference, this is the equivalent of Michael Phelps, Sun Yang, and Missy Franklin all joining a similar union in swimming.

Among the demands are those typical with any union: collective bargaining rights, and drawing a bigger share of the Olympic pie (specifically through the use of prize money at the Olympics). At the heart of the matter, however, is the IOC’s “rule 40,” the much-debated rule that forbids non-IOC sponsors from using Olympic athletes in their ads during the Games, which is the brief period times every four years where Olympic athletes truly have an opportunity to cash-in on their hours of dedication.

The challenge in unionizing by Olympic athletes, as compared to those in the professional leagues, are many-fold. For starters, in major sports leagues like the NHL (who is currently in labor disputes) and the NFL and NBA (who recently emerged from them), every athlete is more than eke’ing out a living. For many Olympians, any sort of striking action would leave them  unable to pay even the most basic of living expenses: a situation which might intimidate them from joining.

Further, the cyclical nature of the Olympics means that these issues could drag out for an incredible amount of time, because financial threats to the IOC are so heavily concentrated in the Olympic year.

In favor of the athletes, however, is seemingly a significantly more manageable leverage. The costs and administration associated with running an elite swimming or track & field event are immensely less than the fanfare surrounding those in the major American professional sports leagues. The threat of NBA players reforming that which already exists is much less than the threat of, say, Olympic athletes creating an independent swimming World Championship event (not to diminish the amount of effort that goes into producing those events).

The other advantage is momentum. Olympic athletes are finally growing the kind of star-power that gives them the kind of mainstream clout to put pressure on the IOC and various other federations. Usain Bolt is a prime example in track; now swimming has multiple athletes who are on A-lists to major events like the MTV Music Awards and New York Fashion Week.

Either way, the funding model has to have changed. There are plenty of arguments about the costs of running an event as huge and looming as the Olympics and the amount of manpower and investment to put on such an event, but if athletes are expected to perform at such a high level and aren’t being fairly rewarded for their efforts, then things were bound to hit a tipping-point.

For reference, athletes in Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL receive between 45-55 percent of the revenues in salary, on average, depending on how far back you look historically. The annual revenue for 2011 of the USOC was $141 million in 2011, and $251 million in 2010. The 2012 figure will likely be in excess of $300 million, as broadcast revenues are recorded in Olympic years.

But the complaints of Olympic athletes go even beyond that. The handcuffs placed upon them with regard to private sponsorships go far beyond what any of those athletes in major sports face. Ultimately, the biggest complaint of the athletes seems to be that they don’t get a big enough share of the revenue generated directly by their sports, but are handicapped in the extra-competitive marketplace from maximizing those earnings.

With many sub-organizations, the structure obviously can’t be identical to that of the above-mentioned organizations (often times, money is filtered to athletes through organizations like USA Swimming), but there seems to be a demand for more efficiently-run governance that leaves a bigger portion of the revenue in the hands of the athletes. The USOC currently represents 38 different sports.

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8 years ago

I think an athletes union could potentially leverage rights but not actual payment. I don’t see cash prizes ever being likely at the Olympics and I think the IOC is more likely to just allow those professionals who want to “strike” to “strike” and just allow the next guys in line to take their place. I think another major difference is that player’s unions in franchise sports have CBA’s with their respective organizations, while there is no real reason for the IOC to enter into a CBA. The only plus side for the NHL, NBA, NFL, etc to enter into a CBA is because they have to bargain with individual players anyways and the CBA ensures some stability and standards.

8 years ago

Long live the spirit of “Pre.”

8 years ago

It won’t be easy for athletes to get more rights from the IOC, but if Lochte, Yang, Magnussen, Adrain, Agnel…formed a union the IOC wouldn’t just let them not compete. The superstars are everything to swimming and without them the Olympics would take a huge dive, literally, in viewership and revenue.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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