Track and Field Athletes Unionize to Protect Interests

By:  Kaitlyn Kacusta, Ruling Sports Intern (Twitter:  @KRKacsuta)

Track and Field athletes from around the world have recently agreed to band together as a single, unified body.  The Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA) is now a global union that seeks to represent the collective interests of athletes and to make a professional career in the sport a more realistic and viable option.  The lack of a trickle-down from the massive sums of money generated by the 2012 Games to the track and field competitors has given life to TFAA.

This unionization to make the sport profitable for all athletes has been an ongoing struggle in track and field.  Between the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games, the greatest American distance runner, Steve Prefontaine, battled with the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), and argued that there was no way for athletes to properly train to represent their countries in the Olympics unless they generated an income from meets that brought in millions because of the star power of athletes like Pre and Frank Shorter.

While the track and field circuit is now full of professional athletes, the conflicts over the sport’s profits still exist.  Sanya Richards-Ross, a TFAA Board member, explained that TFAA seeks change because, “[a] lot of athletes in our sport are severely underpaid, hold two or three jobs just to train and stay in the sport.”  Though accurate data for the salaries of track and field athletes is not clear, it is estimated that athletes in ranked in the top 10-25 internationally, in their respective discipline, only earn between $10,000 to $50,000 annually in sponsorships, stipends, grants and prize money.  For comparison purposes, the minimum salary for a National Hockey League player in 2011-12, a league that is in the midst of a lockout and collective bargaining dispute, was $525,000;  members of USA Swimming ranked 16 in the world or better are eligible for a $3,000-per month stipend from the governing body, an amount that does not take into account any other sources of income for the athlete.

TFAA’s goals include institution of revenue sharing, collective bargaining, and changing sponsorship logo and athlete image rules.  TFAA membership gained the much-needed support of international track superstars, like Usain Bolt and Sanya Richards-Ross, in the wake of the London Olympics Rule 40

In response to the Rule, Track and Field athletes began the #WeDemandChange movement to protest Rule 40.  The Olympic Charter Rule limits the ability of athletes to appear in advertising leading up to and during the Games.   With respect to the London Games, Rule 40 therefore, prevented athletes from appearing in ads or using social media to recognize or acknowledge their private sponsors.  The rationale of Rule 40 “goes back to the amateur roots of the Olympic movement,” and was instituted to prevent private sponsors from “us[ing] their association with athletes . . . to suggest or imply that they have an association with the Olympic Games.”

While Rule 40 is a major barrier to an athlete’s ability to maximize profits, there are other International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules and issues that TFAA will be fighting to overturn.  Under the current IAAF Regulation 4.1, athletes are only permitted to display either, one logo of a private sponsors or one club logo, on competition uniforms or singlets.  An athlete’s uniform may also display one manufacturer logo.  The Regulations go on to limit the size of those logos.  Another sponsorship issue facing the sport, the rules regarding the use of an athlete’s image by the track and field organizations.  While organizations may use the image of an athlete to promote an event, athletes do not have the ability to use their own image without permission.

The TFAA agenda hopes to change these rules so that “athletes show a return on investment to their sponsors.”  TFAA is not currently planning to oppose IAAF competitions, such as the Diamond League, by holding independent club meets or to go on strike.  In fact, a primary goal of the union is to have a seat at the bargaining table with the likes of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), IAAF and United States Olympic Committee (USOC).

The now-globalized track and field union, while in its infancy, has admirable goals of protecting its athletes, growing the sport and its revenue.  In many ways, unionization is long overdue for a sport that is seen by many as the premiere sport of every Olympiad and most notably, the Games’ pre-eminent event, the100-meter dash.  However, TFAA faces significant obstacles going forward in order to achieve sustainability. 

First and foremost, TFAA must increase its membership with plans for a requirement that all professional track and field athletes, worldwide, join its membership – à la the players’ unions of North American professional sports leagues.  To date, TFAA members include athletes from Bermuda, Canada, Cape Verde, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Great Britain, Germany, Haiti, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico, Qatar, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Slovenia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States.  While that is a step in the direction of worldwide unity, TFAA has been in existence since December 2009, yet it only became global after London.

TFAA must also be willing to concede some issues to foster good will with its governing bodies.  For example, in order for TFAA to realize the sponsorship changes it deeply desires, the union may have to agree to stronger anti-doping rules and penalties for violators.  Leading up to London 2012, IAAF imposed bans on nine track and field athletes.  Less that a week after the close of the Olympics, a shot putter was stripped of her gold medal for a positive test.  It was also reported on October 3, 2012 that two Jamaican runners, who did not participate in the London Games, were face hearings as a result of positive tests.  The anti-doping message that TFAA puts forth will go a long way to improving the image of the sport and getting the union off the ground.

The viability of the TFAA will may become apparent within the next ten months.  The IAAF 2013 World Championships will take place in Moscow, Russia in August.  Should TFAA make inroads with sponsorship logo changes, fans, sponsors and athletes will see those changes on uniforms and singlets.

2 thoughts on “Track and Field Athletes Unionize to Protect Interests

  1. Great article! As a former collegiate track & field and cross country runner and avid follower of T&F worldwide, I am happy to see the TFAA taking an international initiative to represent the interests of T&F athletes. A problem they might encounter trying to get this off the ground, or track if you will, would be cooperation from each country’s regulating body with the union’s international interests (e.g. determine a standard for drug testing). Nonetheless, I think the TFAA could look to the International Cycling Union (Union Cycliste Internationale – UCI) and use the same format as that union of international athletes. One of the UCI’s main purposes is “to represent the sport of cycling and defend its interests before the International Olympic
    Committee and all national and international authorities” (UCI Constitution Article 2(f)) – identical to the primary goal of the TFAA. If the right steps are taken, I believe that a strong international union will result and the world of track and field will be better aimed to go for gold.

  2. Glad to see people are fighting for our athletes, they work as hard as any other sportsmen
    I hope the TFAA can achieve their goals before im too old to compete 🙂

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