imago images/Fotoarena

Olympics 2024: What Does Athletics Prize Money Mean for the Future?

In Paris, 128 years of Olympic history comes to an end with athletics gold medallists to earn prize money for the first time. The Game Magazine columnist Andy Murray investigates how the amateur ethos has stayed longer than anyone could have expected.

 

The Olympic motto couldn’t be simpler. Citius, Altius, Fortius – Faster, Higher, Stronger – is the cornerstone of 128 years’ sporting endeavours, achievements and history, a simple calling card for the planet’s elite athletes to come together once every four years and compete. To be called ‘an Olympian’ is to be divine.

Olympic 2024
IMAGO / Xinhua / Xia Yifang | The Olympic Motto shines bright at the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony. July 23, 2021. Tokyo, Japan.

Yet, for this summer’s Games in Paris, there’s another word that could potentially attach itself to that sacrosanct maxim – pecunia. Money.

Olympic 2024 gold medal
IMAGO / ANE Edition | Medal from the first Modern Olympic Games in 1896 Athens, designed by Nikiforos Lytras from Greece.
Olympic gold medals
IMAGO / Cover-Images | Guy Butler’s Olympic collection, featuring medals from 1920, 1924, and 1928.

In April, some three months before the French capital takes centre stage, World Athletics president Lord Coe announced his sport would be the first to offer prize money at a Games, with 48 gold medallists receiving $50,000 each. In total $2.4m would be made available, ending more than a century and a quarter in which the Olympics stood as the last bastion of the amateur sporting ideal. Whatever the sport, athletes competed for the medal and what it represented, not the potential remuneration that winning may elicit.

When Pierre de Coubertin revived the Ancient Greek concept of the Olympics at the 1894 Paris Congress – leading to the first modern games in Athens two years later – he did so with a keen eye on the aristocracy of which he formed part. The French baron wanted to replicate the English public school system that believed in the restorative power of sport, but only among the gentry and society’s elite. Ironically, the last thing English public schools are is ‘public’. In co-founding the International Olympic Committee (IOC), De Coubertin inscribed amateurism at its very heart.

Olympic 2024 medal
IMAGO / TT | 1896 Olympic Games in Athens: Thomas Burke secures victory in the 100-meter sprint.

Keen to avoid the rivalry that existed up and down English cricket pitches between Gentlemen and Players – the former almost exclusively culled from the time-rich aristocracy, who looked down on the working-class latter for the grubby distinction of earning a wage for their efforts – professionalism was outlawed. The concepts of fairness, the aesthetics of sporting beauty and being an all-rounder, not limiting oneself to a particular discipline were most desired.

Rules were strict. Sporting professionals of any type were banned. Hailed at the time as the greatest athlete in the world, the American Jim Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 pentathlon and decathlon gold medals when it was later discovered he had played professional baseball, no matter if it was a different discipline entirely. The IOC waited until 1983 to posthumously restore them. Early Olympians couldn’t even practise or train – both were tantamount to cheating. Even until the mid-1960s, athletes were only permitted four weeks of training in the build-up to a Games.

FEMINA magazine Olympic 1912
IMAGO / KHARBINE-TAPABOR | Cover of FEMINA magazine featuring tennis champion Miss Broquedis from the Stockholm Olympic Games 1912.
Olympics 1912
IMAGO / United Archives International | Historical image: Finnish women gymnasts at the Stockholm 1912 Olympics.
Olympic 1912
IMAGO / United Archives International | Demonstration of glima wrestling at the Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games.

The Olympics’ popularity and ability to inspire meant that ethos could endure only so long. As colour television’s advent began to beam myriad feats of breathtaking human effort into living rooms across the world, the quest for perfection ratcheted up. It also meant competitors and countries would start to play fast and loose with that amateur tag, as long as it complied with Rule 26 of the Olympic Charter, which declared that no athlete must receive “any financial rewards or material benefit in connection with his or her sports participation, except as permitted by the international federation”.

The Easter Bloc’s state-sponsored ‘full-time amateur’ athletes stretched that last caveat to breaking point. Nominally students, soldiers or often factory workers, competitors were, in effect paid by the state to train full-time, with all equipment, expenses and even holidays covered, a situation that gave them a serious advantage over their western contemporaries.

The United States were so determined to break open the Soviet cabal, they commissioned the CIA to compile a report. Tennis player Mikhail Karchyagin, it said, was a graduate physician and was on the Spartak club’s roll as a doctor but “he has never cured a patient and has surely forgotten his medical training”.

Yet, while such matters remained clandestine, their amateur status remained. IOC president Avery Bundage remained adamant that “amateur sport is the only kind of sport there is, because if it isn’t amateur, it isn’t sport – it is business” but when he retired in 1972, Rule 26 was gradually made ‘more flexible’ by Olympic mandarins who recognised the need for compromise.

At the 1981 Olympic Congress in Baden-Baden, Germany, it came. “There is no place in the Olympic Games for ‘professional’ or ‘open’ competition,” it read. “The principles of Rule 26 [abiding by IOC rules, including anti-doping] must be retained, and the byelaws made suitable for each Olympic sport, but compliance with this rule should not create inequalities between competitors.”

Effectively, the Eastern Bloc loophole was closed. After tying themselves in knots over what constituted ‘professional’ for the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the admission of top stars in tennis, ice hockey and Under-23 football players for the 1988 Summer and Winter Games prefaced the introduction of the NBA’s elite to Barcelona ’92 as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird swept to basketball gold as the Dream Team.

 Olympics 1984
IMAGO / Sven Simon | Opening ceremony highlight: Rocketman’s display at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Olympics 1984
IMAGO / Sven Simon | 1984 Los Angeles Olympics: Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Jesse Owens, as a torchbearer in the opening ceremony.
Olympics 1984
IMAGO / Sven Simon | Choreography inside the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Yet the tradition of no prize money remained, a hangover of those amateur-only beginnings, even if a ‘redistribution’ of sponsorship money from each Games, government funding and individual associations’ reinvestment have afforded elite athletes across the sporting diaspora an income stream on which to live. Some 60% of National Olympic Committees (NOCs) give bonuses to competing athletes.

As the Games increasingly opened itself up to global commercialisation under Juan Antonio Samaranch’s presidency from 1980 to 2001, the athletes – understandably – began to wonder when they were going to see their share of the pie. Two of the key players in ushering professionals into the Olympics at that 1981 Congress now sit on opposing sides of the prize money divide in Paris. Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe have each won gold medals – the former in foil fencing at the 1976 Games and the latter the 1500m in 1980 and 1984 – and are now presidents of the IOC and World Athletics, respectively.

In announcing the seismic shift to end 128 years’ Olympic history without prize money, Coe was keen to remind the world of his early links to changing the landscape.

“I’m probably the last generation to have been on the 75p meal voucher and a second-class rail ticket when competing for my own country,” he said. “It is a completely different planet from when I was competing. I want young athletes to look at our sport and think that this is financially viable for them. For many, and for too long, it hasn’t been and that’s what I’m now addressing.”

An athletics world championship gold medal in 2023 was worth $70,000, while even winning just one of the 14 regular Diamond League meets delivers $10,000, just a fifth of what will be on offer for a slice of history in Paris.

“While it is impossible to put a marketable value on winning an Olympic medal,” Coe added, having 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, it is important we make sure some of the revenues generated by our athletes are directly returned to those who make the Games the global spectacle that it is.”

Olympics 2020 Tokyo
IMAGO / Fotoarena / Richard Callis | Gold medalist Keegan Palmer at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The IOC’s perfunctory response to Coe & Co’s announcement was keen to point out how it redistributes 90% of the income generated from each Games to International Federations (IFs) and NOCs. Some $540m was allocated to the 28 sports in Tokyo, with World Athletics receiving more than any other IF at $40m.

“This means that, every day, the equivalent of $4.2m goes to help athletes and sports organisations at all levels around the world,” it said.

The lines have long since blurred, yet retaining their pre-eminence in the eyes of competitors, sponsors and fans understandably matters to the IOC and this was their point of difference. It didn’t help that World Athletics hadn’t contacted the IOC to warn them of their impending announcement.

Almost inevitably, there’s a political element to this, too. Next year, Coe is the leading candidate to replace Bach as IOC president, the German having served his maximum term length. Even here, though, the waters are muddied – there are rumours the Olympic Charter may be amended to allow Bach to stand again. Either way, Coe – an IOC member since 2020 and the president of London 2012 – is keen to make an early paly at establishing himself as the change candidate.

Olympics 2012
IMAGO / Annegret Hilse | Fireworks illuminate the Tower Bridge during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Summer Games on July 27, 2012.

World Athletics have been trying to modernise the sport for years, with television viewing figures on the slide, and the prize money is a step at placating athletes such as 1500m world champion Josh Kerr who feel prize money isn’t enough. Athletes have, unsurprisingly, welcomed the proposals. I don’t write for free and nor should they perform at the limits of human endurance without reimbursement.

“It doesn’t change my motivation,” he said. “To me, an Olympic gold medal is personally worth much much more than all the money ever. But I think it’s a good move by World Athletics. The signal is even better than the actual sum of money.”

Clearly, athletes of any sport earning what they’re worth is to be encouraged – it’s not their fault this weird hybrid between amateurism and professionalism exists, after all – but the situation runs the risk of establishing a two-tier Olympics. Few are the federations in Paris that will be able to divert some of their IOC income to future athletes in prize money, so does that mean an athletics gold medal is worth more than one in foil fencing? Try telling that to Cheung Ka-long or Lee Kiefer.

 Lionel Messi 2008 Olympic
IMAGO / ABACAPRESS / Gouhier-Hahn-Nebinger | Lionel Messi and his Argentine teammates celebrate after winning the Men’s Gold Medal football match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

In 2008, Barcelona’s Lionel Messi risked his club’s wrath by demanding to represent Argentina in Beijing. Initially, Barça had refused, only for manager Pep Guardiola – himself a gold medallist from his home Olympics in 1992 – to step in and give the Flea his blessing. La Albiceleste won gold, and only the 2022 World Cup ranks higher in Messi’s personal pantheon of trophy victories. Similarly, Andy Murray (no, not this one) ripped up his 2012 schedule to play in London, his victory providing the impetus to winning a first major at the US Open a month hence. So important was gold to the Scot, he defended his title four in Rio de Janeiro.

The Olympics must remain the apogee of sporting achievement. No amount of money can change that.

Lionel Messi Olympics 2008
IMAGO / Sven Simon | Argentina’s Lionel Messi and goalkeeper Sergio Romero during the medal ceremony after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
 Olympics 2024
IMAGO / ABACAPRESS / Gouhier-Hahn-Nebinger ABACA | Lionel Messi celebrates with his gold medal after Argentina’s 1-0 victory over Nigeria in the Men’s Gold Medal football match at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, held at the National Stadium in Beijing, China on August 23, 2008. Messi will not attend the Olympics 2024.
Olympic 1984
IMAGO / USA TODAY Network | Jim Hartung of the USA competes on the horizontal bar during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic gymnastics trials in Jacksonville, FL.
Olympics 2024
IMAGO / PCN Photography | Carl Lewis of the USA competes at the 1984 United States Olympic team in Los Angeles.
1984 Olympic
IMAGO / PCN Photography | Jackie Joyner-Kersee of the USA competes in the long jump during the 1984 Olympic Team Track and Field Trials in Los Angeles, CA.
Olympics 1968 Enriqueta Basilio
IMAGO / United Archives International | Enriqueta Basilio makes history as the first woman to light the Olympic flame at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
1896 Athens Olympics
IMAGO / United Archives International | Start of the 100 meters at the 1896 Athens Olympic Games.

Read more about the Olympics in The Game Magazine:

How a husband-and-wife team won four Olympic gold medals at the 1952 Games?

The good, bad and ugly of Olympic photography – an interview with Sammy Minkoff

See IMAGO’s exclusive collections for the Olympics 2024.


Discover THE GAME MAGAZINE’s EURO 2024 Special Edition.