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PROTRACK » GENERAL » I'm Tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport by Nick Symmonds

I'm Tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport by Nick Symmonds

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ProTrack Star
ProTrack Star

Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@nsymm800) know that I have been extremely vocal over the last few days about something that I feel is a huge injustice in the sport of track and field. I am specifically referring to the ridiculously outdated regulations that our governing bodies have in place to control the way corporations are able to advertise in our sport. Many fans do not realize how limited the sponsorship opportunities are for track and field athletes. These limitations are not born of a lack of interest from corporations, but rather of the rules set in place by the United States Track and Field Association (USATF) and the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The current rules state:

USATF Uniform Guidelines:

The USATF Athlete uniform policy (hereinafter “Guidelines”) allows club names and a manufacturer's name/logo to be displayed on an Athlete's competition and warm-up attire. The size of all logos must comply with the below Guidelines.

The competition and warm-up attire of Athletes may only have advertising and/or identification as permitted under these Guidelines. Any advertising or other identification on such attire not specifically permitted under these Guidelines is strictly prohibited and will constitute a breach of these Guidelines. Any other advertising on or by or otherwise associated with an Athlete is prohibited, including but not limited to, body painting, tattoos, jewelry, hair dying, hair shaving, the use of any flags, banners, T-shirts, hats, and any other form of display of advertising.

IAAF Advertising Regulations: Any other Advertising on or by or otherwise associated with an Athlete is prohibited, including but not limited to body painting, tattoos, jewellery, hair dying, hair shaving, the use of any flags, banners, T-shirts, hats and any other form of display of Advertising. No advertising or display of Sponsors of the Athletes in the form of “an Athlete x sponsored by company y” or similar may be displayed or appear on the Athletes or otherwise anywhere in the Competition Site.

As an athlete that has been involved in track and field for 14 years and has made a career as a professional runner for 6 of those years I can say, with absolute conviction, that these regulations are the biggest problem with our sport today. Not a week goes by that I don't hear someone involved in track and field complain that "our sport is dying.” Athletes, coaches, agents, fans—few are happy with where we are currently. There is much talk about how American track and field has seen a huge resurgence in the last decade. I certainly believe this to be true from a talent standpoint, but from a financial standpoint we are existing in one of the harshest environments the sport has ever known. Each year the list of professional track meets available to participate shrinks. This is due in part to the state of global economics, but in even larger part to track and field's waning popularity. Today, prize money that could once be had at many meets no longer exists. The athletes bear the brunt of this loss, and is there a way for them to pursue corporate sponsorships to help recoup the lost revenue? No. Believe me, I have tried.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of businesses out there that love track and field and would seize the opportunity to invest in the athletes and the future of the sport. These businesses, however, are not going to invest their advertising dollars someplace where they won’t see a return on them. As a small business owner myself, I would cherish the opportunity to sponsor an up-and-coming athlete or even to use my own career to help promote my business. Why would I, though, when athletes are not allowed to display ANY form of advertisement on their uniforms or bodies? The only advertising allowed on an athlete's body is that of their club and clothing manufacturers, and even these have absurd rules limiting where they can be placed and how large they can be. Do Nike, adidas, ASICS, Puma, New Balance, etc. care that they are being bullied by the USATF and IAAF? Or, perhaps, I am being too naïve: It could be that the shoe companies agree to have their logo shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp so long as USATF and IAAF ensure that it can be the ONLY logo there. If that is the case, then let me pose this question: Does Chevrolet try to tell Jeff Gordon that he can't put other companies’ decals on their car? Of course not, becausethat company understands that increased corporate sponsorship brings in more money to the sport, which allows it to grow and create more fans, who will pack the stands to watch Jeff Gordon's Chevy own the track. Which is more valuable: Being the only sponsor displayed and advertising to a very small audience or being one of many sponsors and advertising to an enormous audience? Obviously, the latter is exponentially more valuable. NASCAR, the PGA, triathletes, and almost every major sport in the world understand this, so why is track and field the only sport still being run as if it’s for amateurs? From a business standpoint, new fans equal new dollars, which leads to growth. And what better way to gain new fans than through corporate sponsorships of individual athletes!

A great example of this involves a company I have been sponsored by for several years: Melaleuca. This wellness company based in Idaho believed in me enough to take a chance on sponsoring me early in my career even though they knew I would not be able to wear their logo anywhere while I was competing, a restriction that most companies are unwilling to accept. For Melaleuca, my endorsement of their products and my attendance at the annual convention was worth their investment. In return,I received a modest amount of financial assistance, which helped me continue to train—but more important—this relationship allowed me to gain literally millions of fans. The entire Melaleuca family has gotten behind me. When I went to their annual convention, the crowd went crazy. People were interested to learn more about me and, in consequence, the sport of track and field because now they had a personal connection to someone who they could follow. As I shook hands and signed autographs, people asked how they could follow me during my summer racing season. “Via my website,” I replied—the same website that has a link to the TV schedule and/or internet streaming site that broadcasts the races. (The meet sponsors can thank me later). It often only takes one personal connection with a pro to get a new fan to tune in and watch an entire track meet, just to see how their favorite athlete performs. Athlete sponsorships create new personal relationships and give entire companies full of people a vested interest in the sport of track and field.

I would never have landed the Melaleuca sponsorship without the help of my great agent, Chris Layne. However, most agents will not take on new athletes who are unlikely to land a major shoe deal. So what happens to these athletes? Currently, they are forced to live a fine balance between working a part-time job and training full-time. Though I'm sure most of them know of small businesses that would be willing to sponsor them, the athletes have no way of compensating the sponsor by offering advertising space. As it is now, USATF and IAAF essentially own our entire bodies, which they can use as rentable billboards to sell for advertising dollars. They take their cut of the sponsorship money and let what is left trickle down to the athletes in the form of prize money. I am forced to endorse the companies that they tell me to by wearing giant bib numbers that bear the meet sponsor's name on it, but I am not allowed to endorse the companies that I wish to endorse on the track. I feel that this is a huge violation of my First Amendment rights. I am not opposed to the USATF and IAAF continuing to work with large corporate sponsors such as Nike, Samsung, ING, etc., especially since these sponsors are pretty much all that are keeping professional track and field alive right now. I am also not opposed to USATF and IAAF taking what they need to continue operating, because we do need a governing body. However, there must be some balance, here and as it stands, the athletes’ rights are being trampled on.

When I have brought up my frustrations with these rules in the past, I have heard several responses. The first and most common response from the USATF is that they are just going along with the IAAF rules. Since when does the greatest nation in the world kowtow to an international governing body, especially when that governing body is committing an egregious offense? The United States Track and Field Team is the most talented collection of athletes in the world, and we send more participants to the World Championships and Olympic Games than any other country. We are powerful and our voice will be heard, if only we have the courage to speak up.

As I have stated, I've been in this sport for many years. So, why am I speaking up now? For three reasons.

First, the IAAF has overstepped its bounds once again, this time in regard to women's records. Now, women that run with men in races are not eligible to qualify for records, even if they produce the fastest time. This means that Paula Radcliffe's Marathon World Record of 2:15:25 is no longer recognized as such. Many people, including myself, are outraged at this new rule. The season of discontent is upon us and the time for change is now.

Second, with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking sites, it is much faster and easier to communicate and to have one's voice heard. Never before has one person's opinion been so easy to distribute to the masses. We witnessed the power of social media all over North Africa and the Middle East as entire regimes were toppled through the coming together of a common sentiment. Last week I started a group on Facebook called "I am tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport" and encouraged like-minded people and my Facebook “friends” to join. In two days, this group grew from zero to 4,000 members. A true dialogue on the subject has begun—and it includes both athletes and fans.

Third, I am getting older. I am no longer the new kid on the block, the rube waking up and trying to clear the sleep from his eyes. I have witnessed the effects of these antiquated regulations for myself and spoken with friends who agree that they are contributing to the deterioration of the sport we cherish. I love running and want to continue to compete as long as I can, but at 27 I am beginning to understand that my career must one day come to an end. I believe in the campground rule, “Leave it better than you found it,” and I don't want to leave the sport I love to the next generation in its current state.

I understand that there is much tradition and history in track and field and that its purity needs to be maintained. However, if these rules are not altered and brought into the 21st century, we may not have a sport to protect for much longer. There is a cancerous tumor in the sport of track and field and its name is over-regulation.


Interesting commentary from Nick Symmonds. Thanks for posting it JB.

Good points made by Symmonds to support his argument. However its hard to se the IAAF being prepared to relent on the issue.

It does get a little tedious seeing 12 guys line up in a 1500m DL race and over half the field wearing the same outfit, particularly if most of them are Kenyan.

Likwise in a 100m race. 3 or 4 with the same bodysuits with no distinguishing markings sometimes makes it difficult to work out who from who.

What's wrong with an athlete having a private sponsor's logo strategically placed on a uniform that is of a distinctive colour?

ie: Symmonds could wear a light green outfit with a 'Melaleuca' logo across the front & back. As the only athlete sponsored by Melaleuca in the race, everyone would instantly know it's him.


Nick Symmonds has attracted a lot of interest following his commentary on the IAAF & USATF's policies preventing athletes from wearing sponsors logos.

This is typical of the responses and certainly the best in terms of research and analysis of the issues.

At a guess I reckon the IAAF delegates get a lot more 'benefits' out of being associated with the IAAF than the majoirty of the athletes, whom they claim they work for.

Posted by Toni Reavis in Opinion
October 4, 2011

I’ve never met you, but I have always been a fan. The intensity and excitement of your come-from-behind racing style has lifted more than one arena to its collective feet, none more so than at the 2008 Olympic Trials 800-meter final in Eugene, Oregon. Just this week you entered another arena, however, politics, by creating a Facebook group called I’m tired of USATF and IAAF crippling our sport. And as I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough, this may be an even harder track to succeed on than the Mondo version you’ve zoomed to four national 800-meter titles atop.

You know you’ve struck a nerve when, in just two days, your Symmond’s summons has attracted nearly 5000 on-line friends as you outlined your main bone of contention: “Could someone please explain to me why NASCAR drivers can have literally DOZENS of ads on their competition uniforms, cars, etc and track and field athletes are FORBIDDEN to have ANY corporate logo on their warm-ups or competition uniforms? Track and field athletes are not even allowed to put corporate logos on the arms as temporary tattoos. These asinine rules have been created by our governing bodies USATF and IAAF and are crippling our sport by preventing the flow of dollars into it.”

Nick, there are literally thousands who share your frustration and concern. And there have been many attempts over the years to lift track and running into the public consciousness. All have failed. One reason, one you seemed to have overlooked, is that what you refer to as “these “asinine rules created by our governing bodies” aren’t crippling THEIR sport, only yours. And that’s the point.

You are under the misapprehension that the IAAF governance is about the athletes. It’s not. Never has been. It’s about them. Always has been. And that’s not meant as an indictment of the people involved, many of whom are well-meaning and hard-working. It’s just the nature of bureaucracies. Didn’t you see Chariots of Fire? Tell me, what, substantially, has changed over the decades, except by matters of degree?

Sure, track and running are now “professional”, but why do you think so many top marathoners turned down the chance to represent their country at the World Championships in Daegu this August? Because the money in Daegu wasn’t on par with what the market is offering in Berlin, Chicago, and New York City. But there’s the nub of your problem. At least the road racers have an alternative. You don’t. And the way the powers have structured the whole apparatus - with every athlete an independent contractor, and represented as such clawing for Olympic selection – you need the IAAF and USATF more than they need you. And they know it! You’re just an individual. They own the game. They can fill your lane in an instant.

As presently constituted, with running controlled at the international level by remnants of a Victorian-era paternalism and class structure determined to protect positions of power and lifestyles that, at times, would make Donald Trump blanch, there exists not one scintilla of overview by a professional body representing athletes mandated to protect, enlarge and package the sport’s assets within the marketplace. It’s a rigged game, not unlike what Columbia University economics professor Jeffrey Sachs calls “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” regarding the erosion of the American middle class.

When questioned in 1993 about the disparity of dollars awarded athletes under his jurisdiction vis-a-vis other sports, the late IAAF president Primo Nebiolo was unequivocal.

“Our goal is not to share with some great athletes the income that comes from our hard work and our efforts. Our goal is to use this income to reinforce our federations and develop athletes all over the world.”

Their hard work, mind you, their efforts. Yet by assuming this anti-star posture, Nebiolo not only contradicted the market
acknowledgement that the star-system is what generates public and economic interest – be it in Hollywood or the NBA – but he hamstringed his own efforts to do that which he claims was his goal. The more you elevate your heroes the greater your own opportunity to expand grass roots programs as well. Stars pay a dividend. But developing athletes, you’ll notice, was only the second of his goals. “Reinforcing our federations” was number one.

As a further consequence of this federation-versus-athlete atmosphere, the IAAF continues to unwittingly foster the preponderance of running’s media via drug allegations and court battles as athletes revert to any means necessary to get their piece of the restricted pie. The athletes, in fact, do not have an advocate within the sport’s current bureaucracy, but instead are confronted with a competitor in whom they place no trust.


While the world recovered from the devastation of World War Two, and the nations of Africa were breaking the
colonial bonds that had tied them to European powers since the Conference of Berlin in 1885, the First and Second World athletes dominated world competitions, much of it as a sublimation of Cold War antagonisms. Throughout this time, African nations weren’t involved in organized world sport whatsoever – with the notable exception of Ethiopia in the person of Abebe Bikila, 1960 and `64 Olympic marathon champion.

The First and Second Worlds competed within a closed loop, much like American football and baseball do to this day (and American manufacturing did until the 1970s). And organic heroes developed naturally from within this system. Besides, sport in general wasn’t treated as a business by any sport.

However, since the end of colonial rule in Africa in the early 1960′s, even as the athletes from the newly independent nations began to emerge onto the world stage hungry for spoils, back in America a young advertising man, Pete Rozelle, was hired in 1960 to be commissioner of the National Football League. The following year Rozelle designed federal legislation that permitted the sale of television broadcast rights to a single network for the entire league’s schedule rather than to numerous local broadcast outlets as individual games.

In the ensuing years these two forces, the spread of the track into all corners of the globe, and the application of business and marketing practices by American sports, conspired to separate track and running from the mainstream of American sporting life. In 1988 at the Seoul Olympics, the emerging nations’ athletes, especially those from Kenya, came fully into their own, even as the Ben Johnson steroid scandal detonated public opinion in the face of track and field (and by extension all of running).

While the athletes continued to improve the standards of excellence set by previous generations, the natural star-building system of the pre-1968 Mexico City Olympics faltered as the Cold War ended, and track was no longer used as a rallying cry by political enemies. And with no institutional support available from the homelands of these new champions to salute and promote their accomplishments, the need to forward this cause should have reverted, as a matter of course, to the sport’s umbrella organization, the IAAF.

But rather than stepping forward to buoy the international promotion of excellence and increasing prize purses to match other sports while the acceptance curve caught up worldwide, track officials focused, instead, on cheap talent and began touting fast times as the main attraction rather than the athletes, who they considered easily replaceable commodities. As a consequence, these opposing shifts in athletic and marketing trends resulted in a devastating void in the public recognition of track and running (except for drug use).

With no one’s job in jeopardy by the current invisible, if not negative, public image of track and field and road running, with individual governing federations acting as semi-autonomous rogue states tying athletes to a form of athletic serfdom, and events locked in internecine battles throughout the globe out of sight of media attention, the anticipated consequences are evidenced in the humbled state of this sport.

Now, as long as the Olympic Games and World Championships remain the accepted pinnacle of athletic achievement – franchises owned and controlled by the IOC, IAAF, and their member Olympic committees and federations – individual athletes, whose short half-lives in the competitive arena and representation by a host of IAAF-sanctioned agents, will remain powerless to counteract this 19th century dynamic.

It took the top tennis professionals of their era – men like Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, and Roy Emerson - six years (1963 to 1968) of boycotting the four tennis majors, while barnstorming on their own, before they broke the system and ushered in the open era. And remember, Rod Laver won the Grand Slam in 1962 his last year in, and again in 1969 his first year back, meaning he gave up 24 opportunities to play in the Australian, French, and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon in those six years. All for a cause he believed in. So, Nick, are today’s track athletes willing to make that kind of personal sacrifice? Show me an alternative, and I’ll write the press release.



A fan in the press box


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