So, it’s Olympic year and the workings of the athletics world can be opened up for examination.
We all have a basic idea of how sports stars such as footballers, golfers and tennis players make their money, but with athletes it’s a whole different ball game.
Unlike most sports, athletes’ pay is extremely performance related. As a result, an athlete can vanish off the face of the earth for a number of years then reappear with an almighty bang.
Usain Bolt is a prime example of this: at his first Olympics (Athens 2004) he was knocked out in the first round running over half a second off his best. A few years later he reappeared to break the 100 meter world record on a rainy cold day in New York, and so his legend began.
Pole vaulter Elena Isinbayeva represents the flip side of this with incredible achievements such as being a five-time world champion, it took her five years to recapture her form again. The reason for these explosions and implosions in form can be as long as my arm, so for the sake of this article let’s just say that nothing lasts forever.
The general formula for a professional track and field athletes pay is as follows:
Basic pay from a key clothing sponsor + a small salary from a governing body including medical support + addition sponsorship depending on media power (eg car deals with Jaguar/BMW ) + performance bonuses = £££
All the above will come under a strict performance criteria, usually based around personal best rankings and placing’s at major championships. There is also another key pay day that almost all athletes are eligible for: drum roll at the ready, trumpets prepped, say hello to, the corporate band wagon.
Retired athletes can make a fortune off motivational talks for thousands an hour and from businesses. Former Olympian and TV commentator Roger Black offers his services as a motivational speaker. The lure of a long arduous struggle paired with sporting success seems to fit well in corporate land.
In terms of PR let’s treat athletes like campaigns, or in university terms, below is your brief.
Athlete X has achieved various championship individual bronze medals and one gold in a relay, but recently athlete X has been suffering with injuries for at least two years. In order for this athlete to continue paying the bills and train to an elite standard you should create a Public Relations / Communications campaign that uses all necessary tactics to highlight the benefits of sponsoring Athlete X.
(I humbly apologise for the example brief when you all thought that you’d escaped university assignments for the summer. )
The importance of PR to an athlete is unequivocal, the ability for an athlete to be admired in the public eye is essential for success in and out of the arena. Whether it’s on a talk show, in the paper or simply being quirky on social media, every aspect is well regulated and has been mapped out by a hidden communications team.
400m Olympic champion Lashawn Merritt is shown as being well-mannered, stays out of the spotlight and never gets drawn into any topical debates. It’s almost as if it’s just about the sport for him, so when he failed a drugs test in 2010 it was presented as being found in a substance for penis enlargement. This conveniently happened to be a substantial taboo subject which meant that adults would be unlikely to talk about the subject in front of their children. At every moment he was apologetic pleading that he was ashamed and unaware of the banned substance, but a 21 month ban followed.
Dwaine Chambers represents another dilemma. Instead of public regret, he stated that all the athletes were doing it, and that he was still in regular contact with his supplier. Though his Olympic ban was overturned, his public image has been severely damaged. Do you think his PR team did the right thing? Maybe morally, but whose best interests were looked after, the clients or the agency’s?
Genuine stars regardless of the hype
Allyson Michelle Felix is a feisty slender US athlete whose primary event is the 200 meters, she is a two-time Olympic silver medallist, as well as being the only woman ever to be a three-time athletics World Championship gold medal winner for the same distance. As she has never achieved an individual Olympic gold medal you can guarantee that she’s going to be hugely fired up for the Games.
Usain Bolt, I just could not leave this man out, the Jamaican rock star sprinter is a five-time World Champion and three-time Olympic gold medallist. What you may not know is that he’s is one of only seven athletes to win the World Championships at the youth, junior and senior level. Simply believe in Bolt.
In terms of Great Britain, I would turn to London-born 400 meter hurdler Perry Shakes-Drayton. She has the invaluable knack of producing her best at championships – running two personal bests in a row to win the bronze medal at the Barcelona European Championships. In London she recently blew away all contenders with a massive personal best of 53.77 , making her joint second in the world and more importantly she ran her time the most recently giving her real form.
I hope that now when you see the smiles on a the winner’s faces with the commentator spewing the pre-written congratulations speech, you won’t forget that the athlete’s bank balance just got a whole lot fatter both immediately and in the future.