World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, in introducing prize money is looking to channel greater reward to its biggest stars, enabling them to profit from the biggest career-defining moments in their careers.

Those competing in athletics throughout the year are met with financial burdens, with coaching and travel expenses costing thousands every year. Most athletes don’t have large financial backing or support, meaning they are out of pocket pursuing their dreams. Athletics is not a sport with a high popular interest outside of the Olympics and doesn’t have the wealth of riches available to it like sports such as soccer and basketball.

The reality, however, is that this prize money is not truly helping those who struggle most to sustain a career in athletics. Prize money will only be distributed to the Olympic champions, the biggest and best stars within each athletics discipline.

Many of these future champions are already financially comfortable in the sport, earning decent sums from major meets and sponsorship deals. The Diamond League offers $10,000 for each of its meet winners and an extra $30,000 for those that win the event final competition.

The financial burden is not necessarily being felt at the top end of the sport and this new prize money only directly benefits the winner. Using the 100m men’s sprint competition from Tokyo 2020 as an example, Marcell Jacobs would have pocketed a gold medal and $50,000 but the other 79 athletes that competed in the event would walk away only with the memories.

Even with World Athletics planning to extend its prize money to silver and bronze medalists in Los Angeles in 2028, 96.25% of the field will not be financially rewarded.

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The Olympic Games operates in a completely different sporting landscape than it did in Athens 1896 (the first Olympic Games). Pierre Du Coubertin built the event on ‘amateur’ ideals where money is never the dominant aim. But the idea of professionalism at the Olympics has been a reality for decades now, as the games has continued to evolve with the commercialism of global sport.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) officially relaxed its rules against professional participants in 1986. Since then, individual sporting federations have been able to make their own rules on professional participation, and almost every sport now allows its best athletes to compete regardless of their professional status.

With Olympians already earning money from sport throughout the year, is there any real reason why they should not also profit from their biggest event appearance?  Every other person involved with an Olympic Games is financially profiting from their involvement, so why shouldn’t the biggest stars that make the Olympics what it is, also profit?

The Olympic Games has grown into a commercial juggernaut and money is now well fabricated into the heart of the event. The IOC itself generated $3.94 billion in sponsorship revenue and a further $3.1 billion from broadcast rights at the previous games in Tokyo 2020 (2021). 

The reality is that the entire landscape of the Olympic Games and sport, in general, is beyond what founders like Du Coubertin could have dreamed of in 1896. The amateur ideals of its foundation are idealistic but virtually impossible to adhere to in 2024.

The games have evolved with the times and so, is Olympic prize money much more of a move away from its original ideals than what has already happened? And would Du Coubertin have installed the same principles and rules if he had been involved in the games organizing today?

Although the sporting landscape has changed over the past century, what makes the Olympic Games special is its adherence to history and traditions. Many of its original rules and traditions are still enforced at the event today and all athletes compete under the three basic principles – excellence, respect, and friendship.

All three are still such a big part of the Olympic Games experience. One of the best and most recent examples of this came at Tokyo 2020, when high jumpers, Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Essa Barshim shared an Olympic gold medal.

Both had reached the peak of the sport and celebrated jubilantly at being given the chance to share the moment to epitomize all three principles and highlight what the games are all about.

They were each awarded their own gold medal, but a potential $50,000 prize pot may have had to have been split. Would this have skewed either’s decision to share and rob the games of a special and historic moment?  

Another major issue surrounding prize money distribution is the discrepancy with the rest of the sports involved. With $50,000 attached to a gold medal, an athletics gold medal now holds more value than any other gold won at the games.

The brilliance of the Olympics is that it brings together athletes from all countries to compete with one shared goal, and all of these sports are afforded the same opportunities to showcase the best of their sport. Athletics is just one of 32 sports at the 2024 Olympic Games but now boasts a gold medal with a higher value than any other Olympic sport.

Every prospective Olympian dreams of an Olympic gold, its allure needs nothing more to incentivize. The aim should always be to claim the title of ‘Olympic champion’. Money is offered at every other major event they compete in, but an Olympic gold medal can only be won every four years and for many is a once in a lifetime feat.

For decades, athletes could not put a price tag on what it means to become an Olympic champion but in offering prize money, World Athletics is slapping a comparatively ‘cheap’ $50,000 tag on it.

Whilst the biggest platform for Olympians may not directly pay out, it elevates their status and opens up future opportunities to cash in. They have the potential to become a global name overnight and in doing so open themselves up to greater sponsorship/media deals and opportunities.

Those athletes who are unlikely to ever compete for medals but dream of simply participating in an Olympic Games are the ones who need greater funding to fuel their dreams and aspirations.

That $2.4 million prize pot would undoubtedly be more appreciated and better spent on supporting lower-level athletes in qualifying for the games and targeting the individuals who are more in need of financial aid.