Subscriber OnlyAthleticsWhole New Ball Game

Johnny Watterson: Everyone gets paid at the Olympics but athletes

World Athletics have pushed a door open by saying they will give cash prizes for gold medals

Who knows what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) are thinking after the first pawn was pushed across the board in World Athletics’ opening gambit to change the system.

Earlier this week, Sebastien Coe’s organisation announced that they will give $50,000 (€46,600) to the winners of gold medals at this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris, promising more in Los Angeles 2028 to silver and bronze medal winners. The move shattered traditional principles of no cash prizes for Olympic champions. More fundamentally, it has challenged the IOC’s status as the world ministry for amateur ethos, an ideal that died decades ago.

Who knows, perhaps because of Coe’s brash move the IOC are convening a summit meeting in a five-star hotel in Tierra del Fuego or in a luxury yurt on the Mongolian plains. Their habits are sometimes quaint, none more so than selling the notion of honor and sacrifice as a suitable reward in an increasingly professional world.

“I don’t believe this is remotely at variance with the concept that the International Olympic Committee often talks about, which is recognising the efforts that our competitors make,” said Coe.


To get to this point has been a long sea swim event for athletics, not a 100 metre track sprint. And the IOC? Short of signing up television deals worth billions every four years, have they ever moved fast? It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say Coe has embarrassed the movement by beating them to the punch in rewarding Olympic champions in Track and Field for the first time with more than garlands and platitudes.

No athletes were awarded cash prizes at the Tokyo 2020 games, although various nations incentivise their teams by dangling all sorts of gifts in front of medal winners including cars, money and homes. Ireland do it with the carding scheme, where medals earn more funding.

At Tokyo, Indonesia offered the badminton women’s double’s team a cash prize and free meatballs for life. One of the athletes was also promised five cows and a house from the district head of her hometown. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, the Russian government gifted luxury cars, apartments and even a racehorse to medal winners.

I am probably the last generation to have been on the 75 pence meal voucher and second-class rail fare competing for my country

—  Sebastian Coe

The IOC are hardly short of money, although they would argue they distribute most of it in a different way through federations and bursaries.

According to the website, Inside the Games, the IOC’s financial statements put 2021 revenue at $4.16 billion (€4 billion) and the annual surplus for the year when the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics took place at $843.8 million (€805 million).

A document called the Form 990, filed to the United States Internal Revenue Service (IRS) by tax-exempt organisations, put IOC revenue for that same year at $4.06 billion (€3.87 billion) and “revenue less expenses” at $856.8 million (€817.4 million). However, differently various accountancy practices convey the numbers, they are big.

To keep the IOC functioning people must be paid. Director General Christophe De Kepper’s base compensation is put at $764,134 (€728,984) and with bonus and incentive compensation reaches $1,426,382 (€1,360,768).

Chief operating officer Lana Haddad’s total is put at $920,089 (€877,765), executive director Christophe Dubi’s total is $706,869 (€674,353), sports director Kit McConnell’s is $699,712 (€667,525) and medical and scientific director Richard Budgett receives $529,427 (€505,073).

IOC members are volunteers with more than sufficient travel, accommodation and expense accounts. For that, they may thank Ireland’s Lord Killanin who introduced expenses when he was IOC president from 1972-80. Before that IOC presidents were largely multi-millionaires and expected to pay their own costs.

It was in 1932 that the Los Angeles Games connected the Olympics with the glamour and stardom of Hollywood, and in doing so harnessed the Games full commercial potential as an attractive commodity. Organisers provided the blueprint that transformed the event from a largely elitist sports festival into one of the world’s most important entertainment vehicles.

The difference was Hollywood paid their actors for the box office success of films, whereas the architects and financiers among the IOC founding fathers and their allusions to antiquity carried on as they always had. With the Olympic Games, the IOC were the content providers and the athletes the content.

“I am probably the last generation to have been on the 75 pence meal voucher and second-class rail fare competing for my country,” remarked Coe, a 1,500m gold medalist at the 1980 and 1984 Olympics in Moscow and Los Angeles. “I do understand the nature of the transition we’ve been in and we’re now operating in a completely different landscape, a completely different planet, from when I was competing.”

There are 48 athletic events in the 2024 Paris Games, which will conclude with over 300 medals. In a sense, if the IOC were to give cash prizes for medals, those outside the podium athletes would likely suffer as the distribution of Olympic funds to federations would probably shrink. But long after the amateur ethos has perished a question of principle remains.

Should everybody involved in the Olympic Games, including those that run the IOC, the event organisers, the television companies, ticket sellers and hotdog vendors get paid but not the winning athletes? Coe’s bold answer is a resounding no.