Follow the money
Until 1983, top track and field athletes almost always went to the Commonwealth Games and Pan-American Games. Short of the Olympic Games, those multisport competitions were as major as can be and the Olympics crowned de facto world champions. Then...
Until 1983, top track and field athletes almost always went to the Commonwealth Games and Pan-American Games. Short of the Olympic Games, those multisport competitions were as major as can be and the Olympics crowned de facto world champions. Then came a fundamental change.
In 1983, World Athletics launched its own World Championships. It landed on the international sports schedule in the same four-year rotation as the Pan-Ams and often forced track and field athletes to make a choice between those Games and the World Championships, with most choosing the latter if there was a clash. In the decade of the ‘90s, the choice got harder. The World Championships moved from a four-year rotation to a two-year rotation and with prize money paid to top eight finishers from 1995 onward. In addition, prize money and appearance money were paid at invitational meets around the world, with bonuses for various achievements.
The Commonwealth Games were left in what became an off-year, with no World Championships or Olympic Games and the best would cruise through those seasons. It didn’t help that while athletics had become a sport in which participants could make a living, prize money is not offered at the Pan-American Games or the Commonwealth Games.
This year is weird. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the recent Eugene World Championships out of 2021 and into 2022, what used to be an off-season is crowded. There was just a week between Eugene and the Commonwealth Games. To compound the matter, while World Athletics shut down its Diamond League and Continental Tour professional circuit for Eugene, the Diamond League restarted on August 6, a day before athletics ended at the Commonwealth Games.
The World Athletics pro circuit chilled last week for the European Championships in Munich, Germany, and for the North American Central American and Caribbean Senior Championships in Freeport, Bahamas. With that provision, World and Olympic gold medallist Armand ‘Mondo’ Duplantis of Sweden and Bahamian 400 metres queen Shaunae Miller-Uibo delighted fans in Munich and Freeport with no loss of income.
Freeport had a little sweetener: prize money of US$2,000 for first place, US$1,000 for second, and US$500 for third.
The Bahamian is a good example of how top athletes navigate this reality. She beat Shericka Jackson, Dina Asher-Smith, and Elaine Thompson-Herah to win the 200m at the 2018 Commonwealth Games when the event was held in April, well before the circuit began. This year, Miller-Uibo took the gold medal at the World Indoor Championships in Belgrade, ran Diamond League meets and her National Championships as a lead in to Eugene, skipped the Commonwealth Games, and then strolled in Freeport to a 49.40 seconds victory.
Jackson ran the same schedule, too, reaching the final in Belgrade and winning the 200m in Kingston and Eugene and the 100m in Freeport.
The truth is simple. The top-class athlete is an economic entity with a much shorter shelf life than most other professions. Don’t blame them if they follow the money. They are patriots, but they need to eat.