IOC Olympics Paris 2024 sportsbiz

Rewinding April: Hits and Misses

May 1, 2024

In this week’s Member Insights piece, David Alexander, MD of Calacus PR rewinds the best and worst in the sports industry in April.

The Olympic Games is considered to be the pinnacle of sporting achievement for most sports.

The opportunity, every four years, to represent your country and compete against the world’s best underlines the importance of Pierre de Coubertin’s vision for the modern Games.

De Coubertin was committed to Olympic athletes being amateurs, with professionalism considered a risk to sport’s integrity.

There have been reports that  athletics and cycling events provided cash prizes as far back as 1900, with Britain’s Edgar Bredin receiving 250 francs  for his victory in the 100m.

Conversely, in 1912, Jim Thorpe was stripped of his track and field medals for taking money for expenses when playing baseball.

It would be a further sixty years before the strict rules on amateurism were relaxed, due in no small part to athletes in the Communist Eastern bloc bypassing the rules through their state-controlled ‘employment’ while training for sport full-time.

By the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, when Team USA fielded NBA all stars that swept to gold in the basketball, any hint at amateurism was over.

Athletes could secure lucrative sponsorships and endorsement deals, with national governing bodies providing financial assistance where they could, with 60% of National Olympic Committees giving bonuses to their athletes too.

But unlike other sporting competitions, the Olympic Games remained free of prize money until World Athletics made their surprise announcement in early April.

Starting at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games this summer, gold medallists in 48 athletic events will walk away with US$50,000 in prize money, with the rewards being extended to podium medallists from Los Angeles 2028.

World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said: “The introduction of prize money for Olympic gold medallists is a pivotal moment for World Athletics and the sport of athletics as a whole, underscoring our commitment to empowering the athletes and recognising the critical role they play in the success of any Olympic Games.

“This is the continuation of a journey we started back in 2015, which sees all the money World Athletics receives from the International Olympic Committee for the Olympic Games go directly back into our sport.

“While it is impossible to 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, I think it is important we start somewhere and make sure some of the revenues generated by our athletes at the Olympic Games are directly returned to those who make the Games the global spectacle that it is.”

It’s impossible to argue that sport is nothing without its athletes, so rewarding them financially, when some are not attracting huge sponsorships and endorsement deals could be seen as a positive step.

Putting the athletes at the heart of Coe’s strategy appears admirable, and he explained that not all elite athletes are thriving, with their finances often “precarious.”

But when making such a momentous announcement in the history of the Olympic Games, World Athletics made a basic error which they could and should have avoided: they had not discussed or even informed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ahead of making their statement.

“The one thing the International Olympic Committee has consistently recognised – and they’re right to – is the primacy of international federations to fashion their own futures,” explained Coe.

“I don’t believe this is remotely at variance with the concept that the International Olympic Committee often talks about, which is recognising the efforts that our competitors make.

“I am hoping the IOC would share in this principle, given their avowed commitment to make sure that revenues raised through the Olympic Movement find their way back onto the front line. I think they make the point that 80 or 90 per cent of that goes back.”

The IOC made a statement of its own, explaining how it spends the $7.6bn it made between 2017 and 2021 in revenues from the Olympic Games.

It has also provided training grants of up to $1500 through an IOC division called Solidarity, awarding over 1800 grants worldwide on an original budget of $32 million ahead of the Tokyo Games.

It said: “The IOC redistributes 90% of all its income, in particular to the National Olympic Committees and International Federations. This means that, every day, the equivalent of $4.2m goes to help athletes and sports organisations at all levels around the world. It is up to each IF and NOC to determine how to best serve their athletes and the global development of their sport.”

That is where some of the problems lie – track and field is one of the highlights of the Olympic Games, but if other sports cannot afford to match the prize money, it could create conflict between the haves and the have nots.

The Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF) voiced their concern about the process as well as the context of the announcement.

They stated: “ASOIF was neither informed nor consulted in advance of the announcement, which was made one day after the ASOIF General Assembly and during SportAccord. As a matter of principle, ASOIF respects and defends the autonomy of each and every member federation. However, when a decision of one IF has a direct impact on the collective interests of the Summer Olympic IFs, it is important and fair to discuss the matter at stake with the other federations in advance. This is precisely why ASOIF was created more than 40 years ago, with the mission to unite, promote and support its members, while advocating for their common interests and goals.

“ASOIF has historically taken a close interest in the general issue of athlete compensation, particularly within the context of Olympic Agenda 2020 and vis a vis the professional leagues since 2014.

“ASOIF will raise these concerns with World Athletics and will continue to promote dialogue amongst its members and the IOC. Unity and solidarity among ASOIF’s membership will remain crucial to ensure a healthy future of sports governance and the Olympic Movement at large.”

That was a fairly damning response to the news.

Coe was Chair of the British Olympic Association until 2016, but its current chief executive, Andy Anson, criticised the announcement.

“What wasn’t great about the announcement last week is when one sport goes off and does something on their own, doesn’t include the sports, doesn’t include the IOC, doesn’t include the National Olympic Committees,” Anson told Sky News.

“They create a problem because now other sports are clearly going to get some scrutiny or even pressure from athletes saying, ‘Well what about us? How can this sport do it and not others?’.

“I don’t think it’s particularly appropriate or helpful for one sport just to announce that. We’ve got to look at it holistically and make sure that we don’t create a two tier system.”

There were some supporters when the news broke, though.

Team GB’s most decorated Olympic swimmer. Duncan Scott, is all in favour of payments for Olympic medals.

He said: “I definitely think it would be welcomed within swimming. It’s taxing so much on the body in terms of 20-plus hours a week in the pool and so many gym sessions. It can be really tough being a swimmer in GB but Aquatics GB seem like they’re wanting to move it in a positive direction.”

Coe is a seasoned politician, having become a Lord after a spell as a Member of Parliament in Britain and helping London win the 2012 Olympic Games before his positions in sports administration.

To make such an aggressive move, without collaborating with the IOC and other stakeholders, might appear naïve and foolhardy but equally could be a shot across the bows amid speculation that he wants to become the next IOC President.

Rather than adhering to the status quo, Coe has proved himself to be an alternative, positioning himself firmly against Russian athletes competing at the Olympic Games as neutrals.

The key learning here is to ensure collaboration and discussion with stakeholders to gain support and understanding, particularly when making plans and announcements whose ramifications extend far beyond your own parish.

By blindsiding the IOC, ASOIF and other governing bodies, World Athletics very much set its stall out as an outlier, making a decision regardless of the wider consequences for other sports federations and their athletes.

How this affects the other Olympic International Federations and the future of its athletes remains to be seen.

IOC Olympics Paris 2024 sportsbiz