Jawad Iqbal Jawad Iqbal

Prize money doesn’t belong at the Olympics

Sebastian Coe (Photo: Getty)

Lord Coe, the president of World Athletics, has come up with the daft and damaging idea that athletes should be paid for winning gold at the Olympic Games. In doing so, the track and field governing sports body would become the first to offer prize money in the history of the Olympics. The idea of rewarding competitors with pots of cash runs counter to the spirit of everything the Olympics supposedly stands for – which is why the International Olympic Committee has never awarded money for participating or winning a medal at the games. Competing should be glory and reward enough. 

The idea of rewarding competitors with pots of cash runs counter to the spirit of everything the Olympics supposedly stands for

What is World Athletics proposing? Starting with the Paris Olympics this summer, track and field athletes who win gold in each of the 48 events will receive £39,360 ($50,000). World Athletics has also promised to extend cash prizes to Olympic silver and bronze medal winners at the LA 2028 Games. The awarding of prize money will be subject to ratification, which will include medal-winning athletes undergoing and clearing the usual anti-doping checks. Lord Coe says it is only right that his federation passes on the money it gets from the IOC every four years to reward athletes. Yes, but is this really the best and most sensible way of doing so? Why not funnel financial support to athletes in other ways rather than breaking with Olympic tradition in paying competitors for winning medals? His argument also ignores the fact that many medallists receive payments from their countries’ governments and from sponsors.

Coe himself acknowledges that it is ‘impossible to put a marketable value on winning an Olympic medal’, while going on to do precisely that. How long before someone points out that the prize money is not commensurate with the huge effort and commitment involved? After all, a championship-level footballer would easily earn more than £39,000 in just one week. The pressure would inevitably build for even more prize money to be offered to winners. The very essence of the Olympics – a competition in which amateurs compete for glory – would be left in tatters.

Coe has described the idea of Olympic prize money as a ‘pivotal moment’ for the sport as a whole. He is right but it raises the question of why World Athletics did not talk to the IOC in detail beforehand. Surely such a big change to existing competition formats merits wider discussion and agreement? Instead, Coe offered up the feeble idea that the IOC will ‘share in the principle’ of track and field gold medal winners earning prize money. Why would the organisers of the Olympics break with a 128-year tradition of offering no cash prizes to indulge the agenda of World Athletics?

It is no great surprise that the move has gone down well with some athletes. Greg Rutherford, who won gold in the long jump at the 2012 London games, described it as a ‘brilliant step in the right direction.’ No one can begrudge individual athletes for being in favour. The financial rewards for athletes tend to be negligible except for the lucky few, such as Usain Bolt, who became an international star with all the accompanying millions in sponsorship and advertising deals. No one is disputing the sacrifices of individual athletes but isn’t that the whole point of Olympic competition? To go that extra mile, not for money, but for the glory of the thing itself. Must everything in sport come down to money? Coe, who won gold in the 1,500 metres at the 1980 and 1984 games, is right to point out that the world has changed from his own days as an athlete on ‘the 75-pence meal voucher and second class rail fare’, going from one international race competition to another. It is also certainly the case that it is within the rights of international federations like World Athletics to make decisions based on the interests of those they represent. Yet there are bigger ideals and principles at stake. The Olympic Games already has problems aplenty, with fewer and fewer cities willing or able to spend the millions required to host the competition. The last thing it needs right now is an idea that undermines its very raison d’etre. Prize money for medals has no place at the Olympics.

Written by
Jawad Iqbal

Jawad Iqbal is a broadcaster and ex-television news executive. Jawad is a former Visiting Senior Fellow in the Institute of Global Affairs at the LSE

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