What happens when you fall short of your dream without a shot to try again for four more years?
U.S. 800-meter runner Molly Ludlow knows this feeling all too well. At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Ludlow (nee Beckwith) finished fourth—the top three with the Olympic qualifying standard in each respective event qualify for the Games—by two-tenths of a second. Returning to the trials in 2016, Ludlow had her eye on the prize, but again fell short. In the women’s 800-meter final, a crash impacted several women including Ludlow, and again she finished fourth, this time by .04 of a second.
“It’s really, really bad luck,” Ludlow says. “I never used that word because I don’t really believe in it because you make your own luck by winning races. My coach and I know exactly what would’ve gone down that day and we discussed it before and after the race. I’ve never been more confident in it.”
When she went on her first run after the trials back at home in Indiana, she remembers being incredibly emotional; she experienced a shortness of breath and needed to stop a few times.
“I imagined coming back here and having made an Olympic team along with all the memories of all the training I put in being a little different,” Ludlow says.
Ludlow has no regrets about the women’s 800-meter final. She says that she nearly tripped twice and ran in lanes three and four on the last curve, which added a fraction of distance. But ultimately, she’s missed out on two Olympic teams by a combined .26 seconds, and in the track and field world, not making the Olympic team can have an immense financial and physiological impact.
The economics of track and field
In U.S. track and field, every athlete’s ultimate goal is making the Olympic team—and then winning a medal on the sport’s largest stage. And these goals are highly incentivized by the professional athlete’s sponsorship contract.
When a track and field athlete signs a professional sponsorship contract—frequently with a shoe or nutrition company, sometimes with larger corporations—most receive a base salary and have the opportunity to earn performance-based bonuses. (Many field athletes just have a product-and-bonus deal, even those that make the Olympic team.) The top three U.S. athletes in marquee events such as the 100 meters and marathon can earn over $100,000 as a base salary, and athletes in events that draw less attention—often the field events—earn less, if any base compensation.
When it comes to bonuses, a world record can earn an athlete usually $100,000, while an American record earns the athlete about $50,000. High American and world rankings can produce bonuses as well: A top-three American ranking can yield between $3,000 and $10,000, while a top world ranking can create a $30,000 bonus (for athletes with a very good contracts). It could be the case that a long shot or a surprise athlete could be awarded $100,000 for a top world ranking, but the usual bonus is in the $25,000–$30,000 range. The bonus from a top-three finish at the U.S. championships for indoor and outdoor season earns $3,000 to $10,000. A top-three finish at the world indoor championships can earn an athlete $2,000 to $10,000. A top-three finish at the world championships for the outdoor season not only adds a medal around an athlete’s neck but also a $40,000–$100,000 bonus.
“In some of the technical events like the throws, making the Olympic team could be a huge jump from having little to no base in your contract [the contract instead provides free equipment and bonuses],” one athlete representative tells SI. “Then you make the Olympic team, you could have a base of $20,000. Going from zero to $20,000 plus bonuses is a big amount.”
Other incentives in contracts include time bonuses, landing on the cover of a major publication (athletes’ chances are obviously increased if he or she is an Olympian), personal bests bonuses and winning major races such as the IAAF Diamond League meets, which is the major international racing circuit of the sport. Athletes have to be selected into the highly competitive fields of the Diamond League meets, and being an Olympic medalist significantly helps increase those chances. Some athletes can even receive appearance fees for competing at Diamond League meets, though that’s often reserved for the sport’s biggest stars.
“There are very few athletes that get paid to run in Diamond League events,” another athlete agent says. “Obviously [Usain] Bolt makes hundreds of thousands of dollars from each Diamond League but most people get nothing. In terms of U.S. athletes, their contracts have those performance bonuses so getting a lane and performing well will get them some money.”
On the flip side, athletes can also be subject to reductions if they’re struggling in their event. If an athlete fails to hit a ranking, doesn’t appear at a major outdoor championship or does not race in a certain number of IAAF-certified races in a year, he or she can be hit with a reduction. Even if an athlete gets hurt (or if a female athlete gets pregnant) and doesn’t race for 180 days, his or her pay can be suspended.
While not every shoe company contract features reduction clauses like these, several of the high-profile companies do.
“Someone who is getting paid $20,000 or less a year is someone who has probably never made an Olympic team, and they will likely have to out-perform their contract in order to make the team and then they get penalized for not performing to that level [consistently],” says Will Leer, who finished fourth in the 1500 meters at the 2008 Olympic trials. “That’s pretty sick to me but I’ve only ever signed a contract with Nike and that’s how they do their business.”
In 2014, a report by David Woods from The Indianapolis Star found that some athletes within track and field earned as little as $5,000 from the sport. In his most lucrative year on the track, Leer estimates that he has earned somewhere around $10,000 to $15,000 from race earnings and appearance fees on the European circuit.
“I think I’ve raced like eight to 10 times because some meets [in Europe] wanted to pay me to run with an $1,000 appearance fee here or another $500 there,” Leer says. “That’s better than nothing. At the end of the day, this is about making money and making teams. If you’re not making money, you’re not going to make teams.”
It’s difficult to find a metric, other than tangible results, that helps determine how much a sponsored track and field athlete brings back to the shoe company. But brands know that sponsoring an athlete as a whole is crucial for earning legitimacy, and athletes’ success only elevates that brand’s name.
“Marketing works. Shoe companies wouldn’t do it if they didn’t work,” the first agent says. “Sometimes you look at it as, ‘If an athlete is making X [amount of money], is the shoe company selling that amount in shoes or more to make it worth the while?’ It’s about getting on people’s radars. HOKA was big with trail and ultra-runners as well as injured runners. They’re getting into track to appeal to younger and faster runners. A certain athlete may not sell shoes but it’s part of a bigger strategy.”
So, what’s next after fourth place?
When an athlete earns the ever-coveted Olympic spot (or even better, wins an Olympic medal), the biggest benefit is the extension of life within the sport. The athletes also gain everything from name recognition and access to better coaches to bonuses (as described above) and their face on NBC, to name a few.
But can fourth-place earn athletes anything? There’s some value, but not as much; sponsorship contracts are highly centered on success and winning medals, with Olympic success being the biggest money-maker. If a seasoned athlete in their late 20s or early 30s misses the Olympics, it may not be feasible for them to continue training for another Olympic cycle, since sponsors may not be willing to further invest in the athlete, or they may not be able to continue training at a high level for four more years.
“If someone is fourth in any event, you can still be one of the best in the world,” the first agent says. “Look at the 100 meter hurdles, you can be the best in the world and still finish outside the top three. Athletes that make the Olympic team are valuable and that’s what the shoe companies want but even if you do not make it, you can continue to bring along great exposure to the brand. There’s the interesting story later on when someone was fourth and they come back. There’s nothing better than the battle for the third place at the trials.”
However, for up-and-coming athletes, finishing fourth may be incentive enough for a company to re-up their contract, providing a consistent flow of money to train for another four years. Take Leer for example. He was unsponsored at the 2008 Olympic Trials, and after his fourth-place finish in the men's 1500 meters, he inked a professional contract with Nike that would take him through the next Olympic cycle.
However, after some fourth and fifth place finishes in subsequent U.S. championships, he started to see the darker side of track and field’s business.
“In 2009, I finished fifth and I felt the difference of what making a team meant,” Leer says. “At that time, I would say that missing out on that team from that single race probably cost me $70,000–$90,000 when we factor in bonuses and rollover bonuses … That’s assuming that Nike doesn’t come back and say your contract value is X amount because of the bonuses that you hit. We’re going to not take your option year and we’ll offer you a contract of lesser value.”
Smaller companies may be pleased with an athlete finishing fourth at the Olympic trials, and in some cases making the final, but they’re in it to win it just like everyone else. But when it comes to huge companies like VISA, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, they have to map out their marketing strategies for years ahead of the Olympics, forcing them to take a calculated risk on sponsoring specific athletes. They’re likely not to wager their marketing campaigns on fourth-place finishers or newly-minted Olympians.
Even the likely gambles finish fourth sometimes: Leo Manzano, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist at 1,500 meters, finished fourth at the 2016 trials, but he’ll still be featured on a six-pack of Coca-Cola around the Summer Games.
“There’s few athletes that transcend outside of track and field in business,” the first agent says. “I remember asking my wife ‘Who do you remember from the 2000 Olympics?’ She said ‘Michael Johnson and Marion Jones’ before stopping. There’s very few that are on the broader public’s radar. These major companies know and they’re only going to partner with people who are almost guaranteed to make the team.”
Moving past the disappointment
The sport of track and field places such a high emphasis on the Olympic trials (two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds once called it the “Super Bowl of track and field in America”) but it takes place only once every four years, making the disappointment that much more crushing. Especially given the sport’s depth in the U.S., some of the world’s best may not be able to represent on the biggest stage.
Minutes after crossing the finish line, athletes who don’t qualify for the Olympics walk through the media tent at the trials.
Some are in tears:
But most are searching for answers and the next step of their career:
Matt Lane, a former distance runner and agent within the sport, knows fourth place better than anyone as he finished fourth at the Footlocker cross-country national championships in high school, fourth at the NCAA championships as a senior and then fourth at the Olympic Trials in 2000 and ’04.
He finished fourth in the 5,000 meters at 2000 Olympic Trials at 22 years old. Of the three runners ahead of him, only two had the standard but the third was allowed to chase the qualifying mark ahead of the Summer Games in Sydney. He watched as Nick Rogers hit the time in a meet in Belgium and he stayed at home. In 2004, he fell short of a trip to the Athens Olympics by .74 seconds. Finishing fourth in 2004, he says, was the beginning of the downward spiral in his career, and he retired in ’06 to finally pursue the law career that he had put off for so long.
“I’m the king of finishing in fourth place and in those cases, you’re still in it,” Lane says. “In the sport of distance running, money isn’t the real driver of your focus. In order to get out there and run 100 miles or do the workouts necessary to make the team, that’s where you need to be in the right frame of mind. I knew I was getting to the end of the line when I wasn’t willing to make the hard choices like going to altitude camp. The rest of your life is waiting for you and that thought process settled in after the fourth place finish in 2004.”
Tom Nohilly has no problem talking about his two fourth place finishes at the Olympic trials. In 2016, he celebrates 20 years since he finished fourth in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase by .97 seconds at the 1996 Olympic trials. It came just four years after he ran 8:16.92, which would have made any previous Olympic team and every team since, but at that trials, he missed the team by .04 seconds.
“1996 was particularly tough because in ‘95, I was second on the team that went to the world championships in Gothenburg and in ‘97 I was second again for the Goodwill Games,” Nohilly says. “I ran 8:21 and missed the team by less than a second. If that had been my last year, it would’ve been a tougher pill to swallow but I had some redemption in the years that followed.”
A string of personal bests and international championships helped take the sting out of the 1996 Olympic trials and Nohilly returned to the 2000 Olympic trials still believing that he could prove himself as an Olympian. Unfortunately, he finished sixth.
“Track and field is a phenomenal sport,” Nohilly says. “Making the Olympic team to represent your country is a great thing. You get to wear the flag on your chest. You go on this awesome trip with all these people that are looked on as real patriots. The truth is, there’s so much more that you can do in life.”
Life after the trials has already started for Ludlow. Last week, she managed to get into the well-desired Monaco Diamond League meet, where fast times are essentially a guarantee. In the 800 meters, she crossed the line fourth—again—but this time in 1:57.68, the seventh fastest time by an American woman in history.
That time also would have won the U.S. trials by over a second. Such is the heartbreak of the trials, but life goes on.