The world has changed, Seb Coe says: track and field winners at Games to get paid GETTY IMAGES

A few weeks back came the announcement of the Friendship Games, to be held in Russia in September. Total prize money across all sports: $100 million. Winners get $40,000. Second place, $25,000. Third: $17,000.

On Wednesday, World Athletics, the No. 1 sport in the Olympic landscape, made a precedent-setting move, announcing it would pay gold medalists at the Paris Games. Total prize money: $2.4 million. Winners across each of the four dozen track and field events will receive $50,000 each. Relay teams will split the $50k. Starting in Los Angeles in 2028, silver and bronze medalists will also be paid. 

The timing may seem like World Athletics is following the Russians. To be clear, very clear: it is not. 

Instead, we have parallel paths, both recognizing the inevitable in the world we are in now—not the hazy, black-and-white world of the Olympics of 1924 nor even the grand piano and rocket-man technicolor LA Games of 1984, but our 21st-century era, one marked most of all by a reckoning and, if need be, reordering of anything and everything, perhaps even its most familiar touchpoints.

That means: in global politics, with the decline of American influence and the rise of Russia, China, India, the Gulf States and the Global South, and in the ways those nations and their allies project soft power through international sport and, as well, the role athletes have traditionally played in advancing not just the interests of their sports federations and their nations but, now – themselves.

“I have to accept the world has changed,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe said Wednesday in an interview with Steve Scott at ITV.

“If you had asked me that question 30 or 40 years ago,” whether paying athletes for winning was in line with what Scott called the Olympic ‘ethos,’ Coe went on to say, “I might have given you a different answer.”

The International Olympic Committee makes a big show of saying athletes are at the center of everything it does. The IOC regularly says it gives back nine of every 10 dollars it takes in.

This is true. Its four-year revenues in the period 2017-21: $7.6 billion.

It’s not often the case, however, that an athlete will see money directly. Sometimes, yes, and often to athletes from developing nations, via a monthly training grant averaging roughly $1500 through an IOC division called Solidarity. (Disclosure: in recent years, I have helped write stories for the Solidarity annual report.) In the runup to the Tokyo Games, Solidarity awarded just over 1800 grants worldwide on an original budget of $32 million. 

For the most part, however, funds are distributed to a welter of national Olympic committees or international federations. From there, the money can be like water cascading down rocks. It goes – somewhere. 

Enter – for analysis purposes, first – the Friendship Games. 

These are being directed in significant measure by Umar Kremlev, head of the International Boxing Association. The IOC has banned the IBA. For those interested, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, merely confirmed in a recent prank call with a so-called African luminary (the call was then made public) what Olympic insiders already knew – he likely will not be inviting Kremlev, or the Kremlev relatives, to, say, a cozy holiday get-together in Lausanne. 

But we digress.

Umar Kremlev, right, with IBA secretary general and chief executive Chris Roberts 3Wiresports
Umar Kremlev, right, with IBA secretary general and chief executive Chris Roberts 3Wiresports

Kremlev, for his part, has understood that athletes deserve to get paid. At the 2023 IBA world championships, men’s gold medalists earned $200,000, women’s $100,000. By 2027, the plan is for men’s winners to get $1 million.

This can’t be said enough: money talks. 

Two years ago, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, the self-assigned morality police of the Western press bent themself into pretzels hectoring the IOC and lecturing the Chinese authorities about the tennis player Peng Shuai.

In April 2023, the WTA lifted its ban on the China boycott linked to concerns over Peng Shuai. At the time, I wrote, “So, believe it, the next chapter will doubtlessly be the WTA going to Saudi Arabia.” 

News, April 4: Saudi Arabia will host the WTA finals as part of a three-year deal that will increase the prize money for the season-ending championship to a record $15.25 million, a 70% increase from 2023

Understand that when the IOC looks out from the Olympic House in Lausanne, it sees Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia in particular and wonders, where is all this going? 

The 2022 Beijing Games opened on February 4 and closed on the 20th. The invasion of Ukraine was launched on the 24th. On February 4—again, the day of the opening ceremony—presidents Putin and Xi issued a statement describing ties between the countries as a “partnership without limits.”

The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, whom the world knows by his initials, MBS, has pledged to make the kingdom a 21st-century Europe.

The first edition of the Friendship Games, Russia estimates, will attract perhaps 6,000 athletes from more than 70 nations. Will some number of them be from the West? Does it matter? If you are, let’s say, a 200-meter runner from India, a rhythmic gymnast from Azerbaijan, a wrestler from Georgia, what do you see? Dollars.

News, March 19: the IOC issues a declaration, a ferocious communique railing ‘against the politicization [ed. note: American spelling here and throughout, z not s] of sport’ 

It blasted the Friendship Games as a “cynical attempt by the Russian Federation to politicize sport.” It noted a “disrespect for the athletes and the integrity of sports competitions.”

The purported evidence for this disrespect was an allegation, unsupported, that the Russians were “deliberately circumventing the sports organizations in their target countries.”

It said, too, “The IOC Athletes’ Commission, representing all the Olympic athletes of the world, clearly opposes using athletes for political propaganda.” Deep breath here. The IOC’s core mission is building peace, and – in time the full story will come out about how difficult it truly was to pull it off – at the 2018 Winter Games it brought together North and South Korea. The joint march in the opening ceremony was, for supporters of what the IOC tries to do, a beautiful thing. All the same, it’s not terribly difficult for critics to argue that almost everything about that Winter 2018 experience involved the manipulation of athletes (see: joint Korean hockey team) for political propaganda. Particularly when the next sentence in the IOC’s release reads, “The commission even sees the risk of athletes being forced by their governments into participating in such a fully politicized sports event, thereby being exploited as part of a political propaganda campaign.”

A month ago, on March 12, in a first column about the Friendship Games, I suggested they were either “a ploy by an isolated Russia or, more likely, an existential threat to the IOC.”

The March 19 communique makes it clear: existential threat.

Why? Easy. The athletes, remember, are purportedly at the center of everything. The Friendship Games offer this opportunity: for perhaps the first time, every athlete in the world – he or she can’t be told no, you can’t go, we don’t have that authority – might well be able to exercise their own power, their individual autonomy, their singular agency to make a decision without being under the control of a national Olympic committee or national sports federation. 

Go to Russia? Chase prize money? I, the athlete, shall decide. For myself. If I win, I get paid! 

This is why the Friendship Games represent such a threat to the IOC. It is why, like a great deal of everything else in the year 2024, the (global) order that has been the norm for years—scratch that, decades—is shifting all around us, and in real time. 

What’s next? No one really knows.

In an Olympic context: 

Will there be advertising on Olympic uniforms? In and around the Olympic fields of play? Should there be? If the IOC revenue stream is already north of $7 billion, and athletes are at the center of everything, should there be a far more direct connection between revenue and the athlete?

What other revenue sources might also be at issue now? Gambling? It’s inevitable. 

Before the IOC ends up in the gambling version of a 1998 Festina doping scandal, wouldn’t it be better to get ahead of the curve? To figure out how to use the immense value of that sort of revenue constructively?

Because money talks, always. 

At the least, shouldn’t those issues – and the lucrative revenue streams they would provoke – be matters for serious discussion by women and men of good faith and goodwill? 

Let us all hope and pray no major security strikes at the Paris Games. If they come off peacefully in what Bach has called our “aggressively divisive” world, the 2024 Olympics are likely to be the last in what many have come to know what an Olympics “looks and feels” like. 

LA did it differently in 1932 and 1984. 2028 will be the same—different, in a different world.

This is the essence of everything, change, electric cars, AI, virtual reality, and back to the Friendship Games. 

The Russians know how to run an event. This September in Moscow and Ekaterinburg will likely prove a success, but truthfully, it will be what it is. Will it be marked by glitches of this sort or that? Probably. All startups are. Whatever.

What’s already at issue are editions two and three of the Friendship Games. 

Logic dictates edition two would likely be in China. Three, Saudi. 

This is why the IOC issued this ferocious March 19 “declaration,” and for an intended audience — if we are being honest with each other — of precisely two: China’s Xi and Saudi’s MBS.

It’s also why, for those attuned to the IOC, the No. 1 person to watch in the politics immediately before this year’s Paris Games is China’s Lingwei Li, a member since 2012. Odds she makes it to the policy-making executive board: let’s watch and see.

Just logic talking, looking out toward the years ahead: how better to have influence, if not more, with China? 

Note, because no one is overtly or otherwise campaigning for the IOC presidency—no, no one is actually campaigning because Bach has made sure of that—just note for your files: Lingwei Li has, since 2021, been president of the Samaranch Foundation in China. What an interesting connection, that’s all. 

This brings us, in a roundabout way, back to World Athletics and Coe. 

Anyone who does not understand that as WA president Coe has been offering a different position on a variety of things – and, now, in this context, what might be possible – has, in the immortal words of Airplane, the 1980 movie classic, picked a bad week to stop sniffing glue. 

The IOC’s position on the Russians for Paris? A few, as neutrals. Coe? Nope. They’re out. 

Thus, one of the fascinating back stories about Wednesday’s WA announcement was the pushback from those close to Olympic House about this fact – Coe and his management team did not inform Lausanne about the Olympic pay plan until shortly before an announcement went out. 

Was Lausanne, well, blindsided? Was Coe seeking political advantage for – something down the road? 

Come on, now. 

There is no campaigning going on. None. Repeat: Bach has seen to that. 

As for being blindsidedgoose and gander here. Let us all recall before the Tokyo Games when the IOC abruptly moved the marathon (hello, World Athletics, which oversees track and field) to Sapporo without consulting the Tokyo mayor or many on the local organizing committee.  

Back to the substance: 

Athletes at the center of everything. 

Incredulously, the notion of the Olympics as a refuge for “amateurism” won’t go away. Even the New York Times could not resist in its Wednesday piece on the WA decision: “Much like athletes competing in the nude, as they did at the ancient Greek Games, Olympic amateurism may be slipping into history.”

This sort of thing does everyone – in particular the athletes – a gross disservice.

The Olympics have been professional since 1992: Dream Team, yo … Serena Williams, Roger Federer, whut … Rory McIlroy, hello.

Coe was first elected WA president in 2015. The mission has been not if athletes should be paid. He has been consistent: how much, and when, issues for when the federation could say it had the means.

On Wednesday, he said it’s now – Paris for winners, LA for the podium.

Maybe $50,000 isn’t life-changing money to a top American sprinter. But, as Coe said in that ITV interview, “you’d be surprised” how “precarious” it can be financially, even for someone who is ranked top-eight in the world. 

There are 48 events in track and field, 24 apiece for men and women. “Not everyone is going to win the 100-meter title or 1500-meter title,” he said. “We have some disciplines where this will make a big difference.”

This is how change happens. In our changing world. 

This column originally appeared at