DES MOINES -- There are 19 billboard-sized Nike swooshes affixed to the concrete walls and iron railings encircling the outer boundary of the running track at the USA Track and Field national championships this weekend at Drake Stadium. There are four more swooshes placed on the infield, including one that is strategically placed at the finish line to appear in any photograph or video captured at the conclusion of a race. There is also a swoosh behind the starting blocks for the 100 meters, another prime spot for image exposure.
In the merchandise tent behind the grandstand, there are endless racks of Team USA official merchandise, all of it emblazoned with that same swoosh. Many of the athletes in this four-day meet that will choose the U.S. team at the August world championships in Moscow are wearing Nike shoes or apparel (whether they are successful enough to be sponsored by Nike, attended a college with a Nike association or simply bought their own gear and preferred Nike). Many of the friends, family members and track fans baking under the Midwest sun and watching the meet are wearing Nike gear of some sort.
There are other sponsorship totems present within the stadium walls, but no corporate symbol is more ubiquitous here than the swoosh, and it is not close. Nike pays for this presence. There is, however, one place you will not see a swoosh this weekend: On the uniform of 2012 Olympic 1,500-meter silver medalist Leo Manzano. You won't find any other shoe or apparel company logo at all on Manzano, because, 10 months after winning a truly historic medal while running under Nike sponsorship, he has no sponsors at all. He is, in the parlance of the sport, running "unattached.'' (A dreaded title that sounds almost medical but is, in fact, strictly financial).
And in this juxtaposition, a decorated runner absent sponsorship and a stadium decorated in swooshes, comes a hard lesson in the economics of professional track and field and, by extension, of Olympic sport. For every Allyson Felix, for every Tyson Gay (and my goodness, for every Usain Bolt), there are dozens and dozens of accomplished athletes whose earnings fall far south of lucrative, trending toward poverty.
(Leave it to extroverted hurdler Lolo Jones, who is competing here this weekend in her hometown, to uniquely shine a light on this circumstance with her Vine post Tuesday, showing her season-long earnings of $741.84 as a member of the U.S. national bobsled team. The posting triggered a variety of responses, not least from other obscure sport Olympians who had made far less than that for their endeavors. Jones the hurdler is not obscure and is highly compensated by shoe-and-apparel sponsor Asics and energy drink Red Bull. Manzano is also not obscure, but is currently scarcely compensated at all).
When Manzano stood on the 1,500-meter starting line last Aug. 7 at the London Olympic stadium, he was a 27-year-old veteran who had won NCAA titles as a freshman (2005) and senior (2008) at Texas and was running in the Olympics for the second time. In 2008, he was one of three naturalized U.S. citizens (Bernard Lagat and Lopez Lomong were the others) to make the U.S. team in the 1,500. All of them had powerful back stories, Manzano's not least. He was born in Mexico and says he lived in an adobe hut outside the small city of Dolores Hidalgo. His father, Jesus, crossed the Rio Grande several times before bringing his family to live in Texas in 1988. He became a U.S. citizen in 2004. At Texas and beyond, he proved himself a tenacious kicker, repeatedly closing to win races (or make teams) when seemingly beaten. At 5-foot-5, he is thick-chested and runs powerfully, though not smoothly. He is relentlessly good-natured.
He won his Olympic medal in his conventional fashion, sprinting down the straightaway to finish second behind Algeria's Taoufik Makhloufi. (Some think, what with frozen blood samples and all, that Manzano could someday become a gold medalist, but to this point Makloufi is in the clear). It was the first Olympic medal in the metric mile by a U.S. runner since Jim Ryun's silver behind Kip Keino at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968. It should have moved the popular needle, but it did not.
There were odd circumstances in play that night in London. Just before Manzano's silver, Jones had finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles, narrowly missing a bronze medal. Jones was a media magnet; as Manzano took silver, dozens of U.S. media members clamored around Jones in the interview mixed zone. I wrote a story about the strange vibe that night in London.
Manzano says he sensed none of this and embraces his medal and the performance that earned it. "Indescribable," said Manzano on Wednesday, where he prepared to run the 1,500 again. "It's almost an unreal thing, that I was able to win that medal." He won like a kicker often wins -- by hanging on and hanging on then running to the line like a little boy runs home from the playground to dinner. In the aftermath, he waved both U.S. and Mexican flags.
It's a cliché that Olympians will automatically cash in on their Olympic success. Some do. Many do not. After completing his eligibility at Texas in 2008, Manzano signed a four-year contract with Nike, which, in the usual manner of such deals, provided an annual salary along with training and racing gear and footwear. Such deals are the lifeblood of track athletes, few of whom earn significant prize money or appearance fees.
"It was a very good contract," says Ricky Simms, Manzano's British agent, who also, much more famously, handles Bolt.
Last fall Simms entered negotiations with Nike for a new deal for Manzano. In November those negotiations fell through. Simms was surprised. "When he won the 1,500-meter silver medal, we expected that this would be very advantageous to him when signing a new deal," says Simms. "Unfortunately, the market is not strong at this moment and the best offer was not meeting his expectations. We approached every shoe company in track and field, and even some outside track and field. We continue to pursue it."
To review: A competitor in the mile run (or its metric equivalent) had won America's first Olympic medal in 44 years, and brought with him a compelling story of immigration and hard work, overcoming poverty and succeeding at the highest level of his sport, and yet could not secure a satisfactory shoe contract. (The word satisfactory is, of course, vitally important here).
"You would think the Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters would have sponsorship," says Manzano. "Nike is a strong global company. They made a business decision. I'm sure a lot of things went into it. My age could be a factor." [Manzano is 28, not old and not young.]
Manzano lives in Austin, Tex., with his girlfriend and their son. He also helps support other family members in ways he would prefer not to make public. "I live very frugally, so I've saved a little bit of my income," says Manzano. "I should be okay for a little while." He plans on running through 2016; it seems likely that he will eventually secure some sort of sponsorship, although it will come at the sponsor's number, not Manzano's.
It would be easy to jump ugly on Nike at this point. How dare they not meet Leo's demands! But as whenever sports and money intersect, the issue is far more bloodless. Nike is the most active sponsor of U.S. track and field athletes, though many are paid at a subsistence level (and still others are provided only with clothing and shoes). Hurdler Lashinda Demus famously said last spring, "People are making $15,000 a year and calling themselves a professional athlete. To me, that's not a good job."
Yet Nike also operates on a different, more broad-based level. The company serves as USA Track & Field's "National Team Sponsor," a multi-million dollar commitment, without which the organization would likely be financially crippled. (Hence, the proliferation of signage). In discussing Nike's involvement with track and field, longtime shot putter Adam Nelson (recently awarded the 2004 Olympic gold medal after the doping disqualification of the winner), said last winter, "I want to be careful with what I say about Nike. A lot of people have issues." [Nelson was once sponsored by Nike, but like Manzano failed to reach agreement on a renewal contract]. "But without Nike," Nelson said, "I'm not sure there's a sport."
Nike does none of this out of kindness or goodwill. Nike pays money to athletes -- and bodies like USATF -- based on their belief that those contracts will result in the public purchasing Nike products. It is all business. Many in the sport have been privately outraged at the large contracts given Oregon-based middle- and long-distance runners, yet Nike's roots lie most deeply of all in the story of Steve Prefontaine and the company surely believes that runners closest to his image best capture Nike's.
Last Thursday afternoon, Manzano went to the line in the first of three semifinal heats of the 1,500, seeking a place on his sixth consecutive national team in that event, a truly impressive streak. He has run poorly this year, but says he has trained well. "When it comes to championship-style racing," says Manzano, "I've been very blessed."
Running in blustery winds and temperatures approaching 90 degrees, Manzano controlled a rollicking 16-man heat from the front and powered home first, qualifying for Saturday's final. He wore a generic blue shirt and black shorts, like a guy in the Monday night all-comers meet. On his feet he wore Nike spikes, remnants from another day. And another swoosh in the house.