“It’s the exact same thing every f**king time” said Fionnuala McCormack after finishing in fourth place behind the winner, Yasemin Can, a Kenyan-born athlete competing for Turkey. “There’s a reason it’s called the European Championships” she also said.
This year’s European championships fall in an Olympic year which takes a gloss off them a little, with nations sending large teams but not necessarily their best. Yasemin Can is also far from the only non-European-born athlete competing at the championships. Our transfers of allegiance map (which plots transfer from 1998 to February 2015) shows a huge net gain for European countries and Africa at a significant net loss.
McCormack suggests that if you represent a country by a certain age, then that’s your country for life. This would be similar to football (soccer for our US readers). Makes sense. Well, no not quite. Top footballers make their money by moving to clubs willing to pay handsomely for their services, the opportunities to compete in the best leagues, the best competitions, and work with best coaches and managers. International competition is another layer, but you can have a successful, satisfying and well-remunerated career without doing anything on the international stage.
This is not the case in athletics. Country representation is everything. You might be world class, but not even top three in your own country. You can compete on the circuit, but the Olympics and world championships—your ultimate goals—are beyond you. Then a country offers you an opportunity to achieve those goals and a salary to boot. Do you say no?
This is about more than national identification. This is about how athletes can make a living from the sport. No Olympics, no world championships means no profile and an uphill battle to even secure the most meagre of sponsorship deals.
Federations, by giving access to major competitions, enhance earning potential of athletes—but at the same time limit it. It’s the federations that negotiate rigid sponsorship deals which impact on what their athletes can wear, say and do, while athletes see very little of the money themselves.
The big debate in the US is about national federations and the Olympic committee’s hardline on non-official sponsors. The question is: if nationality is so fluid and federations so limiting to the economic prosperity of athletes, why doesn’t the sport figure out a way to do without them? Or at least be less reliant on federations for handouts.
We called for it last year: a world championships for the best of the world, not just the best in each country—where athletes can be proud of the country they represent but also credit the sponsors that got them there. It would be a brave move by the IAAF, the ultimate representative of the federations, but they are the only ones that could make this happen. Put simply, the federations have a stronghold on the sport. They do a lot of good, but there is a hangover from the amateur days—and we have little alternative so we are unlikely to see reform.
Take this from the British Winter Olympic team, in response to Bloomberg’s query about prize money for Olympic medals (it doesn’t pay any, by the way):
“We believe that the drive, dedication and commitment required of Team GB athletes is motivated, first and foremost, by the desire to represent their country to the very best of their ability on the greatest sporting stage in the world, the Olympic Games; and their love of sport.”
A grand sentiment, but it suggests British athletes don’t need to make a living (now or in the future) and are subservient to a state-sponsored system—or worse, just not valued.
If a top-quality athlete has the opportunity to make a living from their sport and compete at the highest level—even if it means changing countries—then we say best of luck to them. People might begrudge them, or the country they represent. But we really should look more closely at the underlying problems, rather than throw dirt at those who make the most of a poorly constructed system for a professional sport.