The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Why We Compete Post Olympics

Sep 2nd, 2021
9:05 am PDT

It’s very difficult to find a single day event that will be more engaging than Prefontaine. But, there are a few more meets on the table before this season ends. Two of them, Lausanne and Paris, just happened within two days of each other. And there are two more Diamond League meets – Brussels and Zurich – before the season actually comes to an end. These two meets actually set up to crown the Diamond League Champions.

Now, I’ve seen several people online decrying the fact that the season IS still going. Many saying that the season should end with the Olympics – just like the NBA and NFL end with their biggest games of the year. The folk that say that, do not understand how track and field is structured, because we are not remotely structured the same way that other “professional” sports are.

The NBA, NFL, MLB and others are sports LEAGUES. These leagues have teams that play a round robin type of season. These seasons having a singular goal – to select a champion. So their season ends with a PLAYOFF schedule, that eliminates teams until there are only two left. These teams play to determine a Champion. So for them, that final championship game ends the season! This is not how track and field works.

In our sport, we do have what we call a CHAMPIONSHIP competition nearly every year. This competition is designed to select individual champions in various events. The meet itself is a playoff system of sorts, that includes the top 3 individuals from the nations of the world. As such it is a LIMITED event! In many respects this is where our championship is different – the limitations as to who gets to compete. So, it is NOT the culmination of a season long quest for everyone!

Being limited in scope, where does that leave the rest of the athletes that compete in the sport? Well, everyone else continues in OTHER competitions. Some of these are before the “championship” meet. Some are after. Yes, we do pause, while those that are participating in the championship compete. But the meet itself is just another competition. Certainly the most important in terms of prestige, but for those that do not get to attend or compete, they must continue on. Why? Well, to make money! Because in this sport in order to get paid you have to run, jump, and throw as often as possible.

This is critical, because in other professional sports, your earning potential is determined by your contract with your team. So, even though your team is eliminated from the championship chase, you still get paid your salary. In track and field however, you are essentially an INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR. Getting to the championship meet will certainly earn you more money. No doubt about it. But if you do not qualify for this meet, you MUST continue to compete in other meets if you hope to earn a living this year! As you do not have the security of a “team contract” to sustain you! Now, this is partially true, because if you are one of the superstars of the sport, you may have a substantial contract with a shoe company that pays you whether you go to the championship or not – and pays you more if you do. But the “average” athlete must compete for appearance fees and “placement” money to continue to make a living in the sport!

It’s this convoluted system, that confuses a lot of people. The average fan wants to compare us to other sports. Teams draft and hire athletes and pay them based on contracts. When in reality while we are a “professional” sport, that only means that the athletes can accept money and get paid! We are not “professional” in the way that other sports are set up and organized. In many respects we have retained the same amateur system that was in place 100 years ago. So, we don’t have teams and team contracts. We have athletes that get “paid” in several ways. Some have contracts with shoe companies. Some receive payments from meet promoters. Some get money from their federations. It’s a patchwork of trying to put together a living as opposed to the security of a single contract that one can count on. This is why you hear of athletes working other jobs and doing other things in order to make ends meet.

It’s why you often in today’s world hear of athletes with “Go Fund Me” accounts set up to help them with training, travel and other expenses. Rather ironic when you consider that track and field is the centerpiece of the Olympic Games which is the most watched athletic event on the planet. Even more so when you take into account that it is one of only two sports on the planet that are truly global in scope. And ridiculously ironic when you consider that many of the things I mentioned regarding how athletes struggle are in reference to several right here in the United States – one of the wealthiest countries on the planet. The nation that dominates the medal count at the Olympics, has athletes struggling to survive. Because we’re the nation that does the least for its track and field athletes!

So, we NEED these post Olympic competitions so that our athletes can attempt to make ends meet! It’s part of the earnings process. When we have a system in place that allows everyone to earn a decent living, then perhaps we can restructure things so that the year’s largest meet becomes the definitive end of the season. Until then, there will be competitions after the Olympics.

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