The message the Olympic world needs to hear: Pay the athletes. Alan Abrahamson opinion article. GETTY IMAGES

For those who don’t follow American television, one of the best shows in recent years is called Yellowstone. A spinoff, also hugely popular, is called 1923 – it features Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren, and purports to trace the backstory of the Dutton family in Montana roughly 100 years ago.

One of 1923’s best scenes features a salesman regaling some of the Dutton clan with the virtues of what, in 1923, was novel: Electricity in your home. A refrigerator. A washing machine. Why, says one of the skeptical cowboys, would you want any of those things?

The salesman said: “You can enjoy a more leisurely life!”

This bit comes to mind in assessing the recent announcement by World Athletics that it will pay $50,000 to gold medalists at the Paris 2024 Games and the pushback that plan has engendered, including Friday’s announcement from the confederation of Summer Games sports federations, which goes by the acronym ASOIF, that “for many, this move undermines the values of Olympism and the uniqueness of the Games.”

On its face, these words make for droll if unintended humor. Uh-oh, money in the sacred space. 

This, from a group whose members would largely disappear if not for the dole they receive from the International Olympic Committee, whose four-year revenue in the years 2017-21 totaled $7.6 billion.

What the ASOIF announcement reveals instead is totemic: a profound malaise in the Olympic scene.

Pause here because this column has deep respect for many of the members and hard-working staff of ASOIF. The criticism herein is not personal. This is policy. And this is a profound policy disagreement. 

Change or be changed, IOC president Thomas Bach says, and all the time.

The other federations need to change. They need to pay their athletes, too. Blunt truth: it’s simply easier to bitch about Seb Coe. 

For Coe, the president of World Athletics, this must be what it is like living in parallel universes. 

On the one hand, he’s got the athletes in his own sport telling him thank you every which way imaginable. As the 2024 Diamond League gets underway this weekend in Xiamen, China, you can be assured Coe is riding a happy wave. Notes, letters, more. 

Repeat, mantra-style: athletes are at the center of the Olympics. 

Query: who is Coe’s No. 1 constituency? For that matter, who is purportedly at the center of everything in the Olympic world? Who thus wouldn’t want to look after the people most responsible for making it all go? 

The questions answer themselves.

Parallel universes, though: 

Here are the likes of Steve Redgrave, the rowing champion turned TV commentator, suggesting the money ought to go to “into the development of the sport of maybe poorer nations,” on the grounds that if you win a medal in track and field “you’re probably going to be able to earn endorsements, prize money, appearance money.” Does Sir Steve even know – do not turn to Wikipedia – who Soufiane el Bakkali is? 

Worse, this from Sir Steve, and it’s as if the gentleman just spent an entire year watching and re-watching not 1923 but Chariots of Fire, which is about the Olympics from 1924: “That’s the whole thing about the Olympics. Everyone’s on a level platform.” 

My dude: wake up! Do you really think LeBron James is the same as everyone else in the Olympic Village? 

It is 2024. Athletes are professionals. Professionals get paid. The best get paid more. This is how it works. 

Sir Steve’s attitude is representative. It’s patronizing, condescending and tiresome. It’s stuck in the past. It has got to change.

Just like the words in Friday’s ASOIF declaration.

The statement first notes that some federations are put out because Coe didn’t tell them about his plan before he went public. 

Follow along here because this just shows how silly:

“… it is important and fair to discuss the matter at stake with the other federations in advance,” the release says. “This is precisely why ASOIF was created more than 40 years ago, with the mission to unite, promote and support its members, while advocating for their common interests and goals.” [emphasis mine]

After going on about the values of Olympism, the release declares, “One cannot and should not put a price on an Olympic gold medal,” which is demonstrably false. In 2024, it’s $50,000 in track and field. Continuing: “and in many cases, Olympic medalists indirectly benefit from commercial endorsements.” And in many, they do not. “This disregards the less privileged athletes lower down the final standings.” This is apples and oranges. How paying $50,000 to track and field’s winner affects the IOC Solidarity program, with its $590 million budget for 2021-24, up 16% from 2017-20, the 2021-24 Solidarity budget including a 25% increase in athlete support programs compared to 2017-20 – please explain.

Next, ASOIF says, thoroughly undercutting the point of all the federations working together, but what: “Second, not all sports could or should replicate this move, even if they wanted to. Paying prize money in a multisport environment goes against the principle of solidarity, reinforces a different set of values across the sport and opens up many questions.”

The only value that feeds someone’s family at night is cash. Having enough of it. That is the answer to the sole question that matters. After we take care of that, we can talk about everything else. Like “solidarity,” small s, whatever – in this context – that means, after the confederation very publicly decided to go after one of its members when a quiet talking-to might well have been an example of “solidarity.”

Money in the Olympics is an obvious change. 

The problem for the vast majority of other federations is they don’t have the money to effect this change. World Athletics does. 

This is what they don’t want to acknowledge. 

Better: figure out how to get off the IOC dole – which almost all the rest of them are – and start paying their athletes just like Coe is paying his.

We are in a world of relentless, unsympathetic change. 

In Los Angeles, four years from now, the plan is for track and field to pay all its medalists, not just the gold medal winners. 

Since 2015, when he was first elected World Athletics president, Coe has promoted change. It’s just that very few people outside track and field geeks (me) tend to have paid significant attention to what he and it have done.

The federation has a new constitution. Women are mandated to be in senior positions.

The 2017 introduction of the Athletics Integrity Unit? It’s now widely acknowledged as arguably the world’s best anti-doping entity 

At WA now, a five-person innovation team is at work thinking out of the box. Some of the ideas might fly; some not. A change in the long jump board? Moving the world championship around in the season? 

Paying athletes? That’s an obvious yes. 

It’s beyond hilarious to think that Coe making this announcement is somehow the start of or related to IOC presidential ambition. What a weird way to go. Most campaigns only do things the candidate knows are a political bell-ringer. Coe may yet have his day but coloring outside the lines hardly seems a guaranteed route to success.

It’s for sure clear this episode has afforded Coe’s critics, some number of whom have positions in Lausanne and elsewhere, an opportunity. That’s politics. 

For sure he and I have disagreed — disagree — about a great many things, in particular the way World Athletics has dealt — is still dealing with —the Russians. There will be no Russians in track and field at the Olympics. I think it’s wrong to hold the likes of high jump champion Maria Lasitskene responsible for the acts of her government — just the way the American athletes were made accountable in 1980 for something they had no control over. He and I have very different views about this.

All the same, I recognize this fundamental: during his time at World Athletics Coe has sought to direct change. 

It is what he does. And why it’s so imperative. Now.

Sometimes the thing the world thinks it does not want to hear is exactly what it needs to hear. 

And when it needs to hear it.  

The Olympic world is counting on the Paris Games as a reset.

After Covid and three Games in Asia, the Eurocentric IOC is hoping Paris brings back shine.

For a variety of reasons, it’s far from clear that will happen.  

Security, transport and budget are easy reasons to say why. Then there’s the far deeper issue: the Olympics have to be relevant, especially to its target demographic, teens and 20-somethings. It’s not clear that the audience cares so much, especially the way their parents or grandparents did.

Soccer? Sure. Basketball? Yes. 

The Olympics? The decline in television ratings since 2012 suggests something is amiss.

This is why change or be changed, and why it’s beyond curious why such an obviously constructive change is being met institutionally with such pushback.

When for the 1992 Games, the then president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, did away with the last vestiges of amateurism, that was a big change. 

How was that received? In retrospect, all anyone talks about is the Dream Team.

Change is never easy. Until someone does something that at first makes some number of other people uncomfortable and then it happens and everyone goes, oh, right. 

Now we are in for another smack of change. 

For years, athletes have complained loudly and repeatedly that they not only want—they need—to get paid. 

If a national Olympic committee wants, as a gesture, to pay a winner, great.

But who has skin in the game? Always and all ways?

Beyond the athlete?

The federation. 

That’s why this change is necessary, and it’s necessary now. 

That’s why Coe, and World Athletics, did what they did. 

If the other federations can’t figure out how to do that – there are words for organizations that are slow to react to change. 

Two words, to be kind: genteel decline.

One word, if we want to be on the blunt side: oblivion.

Ask those cowboys from 1923 about those four-wheel steering-wheel thingy contraptions that people started using very fast and all of a sudden instead of horses. They kinda comfortably fit washers and refrigerators.

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