Sat, Aug 22, 2015 - Page 19 News List

US’ Nick Symmonds boycotts Beijing


Nick Symmonds waves to the crowd after winning bronze in the World Championships in Athletics men’s 800m final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Aug. 13, 2013.

Photo: AP

Almost as important as how fast the US athletes run this week at the world championships is how they look doing it.

The gear they 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 will not get a penny.

Symmonds, the defending 800m world silver medalist, is boycotting this year’s worlds because of what he called a restrictive, unclear policy written by USA Track and Field (USATF) regarding exactly when US 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, did not 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 800m final takes place on Tuesday next week.

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 US$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 US Olympic Committee (USOC), which brings all the sports under one umbrella for the Olympics.

Yes, an occasional marketing sensation comes up. However, for every Michael Phelps, there are dozens of Nick Symmonds and even more athletes who never reach his level.

So, the most practical way for second or third-tier Olympic athletes 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 long-time agent whose list of clients includes Phelps. “And to get that NGB [national governing body] 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 US$20 million per year. That large amount gives Nike the right to fit all the US athletes in its gear when they compete at the biggest events.

Symmonds questions whether the US$20 million is worth giving up the freedom to choose what he wears and when.

Responding to the criticism, USATF released figures showing that it spends about 50 percent of its US$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 comment, 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.

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