Symmonds boycott shines light on cash, sponsorship in track
BEIJING (AP) Almost as important as how fast the U.S. athletes run this week at world championships is how they look doing it.
The gear the Americans wear in Beijing is worth millions of dollars for the country's track and field federation, even though each individual athlete can only hope to see a small fraction of it.
And Nick Symmonds won't get a penny.
Symmonds, the defending world silver medalist at 800 meters, is boycotting this year's worlds because of what he called a restrictive, unclear policy written by USA Track and Field regarding exactly when American athletes are required to wear team-sponsored Nike gear while in Beijing.
At practice? Yes. At the meet? Yes. In a coffee shop? To him, confusing.
Symmonds, who is sponsored by rival shoe company Brooks, didn't want any part of it.
''This is hopefully the straw that breaks the camel's back, and maybe, finally, leads to an overhaul,'' said the 31-year-old Idaho native, who plans to be hiking in the mountains when the 800-meter final takes place Tuesday.
Symmonds has been lighting up the sponsor-driven, money-conscious and often-bickering world of track and field with his renegade stand on an issue that has dogged athletes in Olympic sports for decades.
They are the best at what they do, but are not paid anywhere near what even middling players in the NBA, NFL, baseball or European soccer make. They subsist on prize money, (First place at the worlds is worth $60,000), appearance money, bonuses for top finishes at major meets and, quite often, a stipend from the governing body that oversees their sport. Also chipping in via various channels is the U.S. Olympic Committee, which brings all the sports under one umbrella for the Olympics.
Yes, an occasional marketing sensation comes up. But for every Michael Phelps, there are dozens of Nick Symmondses and even more athletes who never reach his level.
So, the most practical way for the second- or third-tier Olympic athlete to make ends meet is to find a sponsorship deal from a shoe, or swimsuit, or apparel, company that has deep roots in their sport.
''They're basically taking what they make and sinking it back into training,'' said Peter Carlisle, a longtime agent whose list of clients includes Phelps. ''And to get that NGB or USOC money, or at least an amount that would make a difference, you almost always have to be pretty well established. It's very hard to pay for a career that way.''
Recently, USATF signed a deal to extend Nike's sponsorship through 2040 at an average of about $20 million a year. That large amount gives Nike the right to fit all the U.S. athletes in its gear when they compete at the biggest events.
Symmonds questions whether the $20 million is worth giving up the freedom to choose what he wears and when.
Responding to the criticism, USATF released figures stating it spends roughly 50 percent of its $30 million annual budget on direct payments to athletes, for their expenses and high performance programs. The federation also has to fund non-elite programs that serve nearly 100,000 members.
USATF did not make CEO Max Siegel available for this story, instead referring to the statement that spelled out its finances.
USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said national governing bodies do a ''pretty good job of outlining the terms and expectations for their athletes,'' and that athletes should know the financial structure of their sport before they make it a career.
''Ultimately, it is the athlete's choice,'' Penny said. ''But the goal is to create a balanced two-way street.''
Athletes earned a minor victory this year when the International Olympic Committee relaxed rules that prohibited them from promoting non-official sponsors during the games.
But that rule only applies to the Olympics. The ''Statement of Conditions'' that all USATF athletes had to sign to go to the worlds has, in some eyes, turned into something it wasn't originally intended to be.
''While everyone was falling asleep worrying about Rule 40, the NGBs have taken what used to be a true code of conduct - you wouldn't smoke, break a law, common-sense things - and perverted them into marketing documents,'' Olympic agent Evan Morgenstein said.
And so, Symmonds is staying home. How big an impact his boycott makes could take years to sort out, though his stand has certainly been noticed.
''He's giving them a voice, and he's forcing people to pay attention,'' said Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic decathlon champion. ''As a fellow athlete, even though I maybe would've done things differently, I have to applaud him in what he's doing. Because it's working.''