Amateur athletes and the forbidden fruit -- money
Let your imagination soar. The night before he broke the world record Aug. 28, miler Sebastian Coe was sitting in his flea-bitten hotel room in the bowery of downtown Brussels. The shower down the hall hadn't worked for years. A cold wind blew into his tiny room through a broken windown. The fastest man in the world over 5,280 feet went to bed early just to stay warm.
That, at least, is what one might imagine for a struggling amateur athlete. But it's as far from the truth as a 29-foot jump.
In fact, 24 hours before his record-shattering performance, Coe was sitting poolside at one of the priciest hotels in the city. He was ordering another round for the rest of the field in the Brussels golden mile and telling the water to put it on the bill. And the shower in his spacious room gave forth hot water -- free.
Technically, Coe and every other track and field athlete in his class are amateurs. Money is forbidden fruit. Says the administering body of Track and Field, the London-based International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), "an amateur is one who competes for the love of the sport . . . without any motive of securing any material gain from such competition."
Yet by all accounts, the Sebastian Coes of this world are rich men. "I'd put the annual income of some of them in six figures," says one insider.
Things are changing, though. It has been an open secret for several years now that the days of behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing (each athlete has his own price for appearing in meets) are numbered.
One day presenting checks will be as common as crossing the finish line.
This Sept. 4-6 weekend, the IAAF could take the first step toward that day at its annual meeting in Rome, agreeing to allow athletes like Coe to earn money from events on the margin of competition -- advertising, supermarket openings, banquet appearances and others.
It will consider a report on the meaning of amateurism drawn up by a special working party. But a decision on making track and field as professional as, say , tennis will probably be put off for a least a year. For the time being, huge bundles of cash will continue to be passed above and below the table.
Coe, for instance, will still collect about $15,000 a year from a British sports promotion foundation. He will also receive a generous grant from a company that builds athletic fields. The car he drives will remain the one on loan from a Swedish manufacturer. And the Italians will pay top salaries to some of their "amateur" track and field stars, plus allowances for housing, transportation, and other expenses.
The Americans in the IAAF favor opening the sport up completely, making it like tennis. Athletes would receive straight prize money based on performance. Appearance money would be a bonus.
In Europe, administrators are more cautious, wanting to go slow during the transition period. There is some legitimate fear on their part that sports promoters will jump in and exploit the athletes. Coe's father, in fact, already holds a contract with the American entrepreneur Mike McCormack, who manages Bjorn Borg and others, as an investment in the day when the sport becomes professional.
Whatever happens, pressure to pay track stars for what they do will increase in the coming months before it eases, largely because track and field meets are generating sums of money previously unheard of in amateur athletics. For instance, 50,000 fans, paid $10 a seat minimum to watch the golden mile in Brussels last Friday.
NBC television, meanwhile, paid thousands of dollars for exclusive film rights.
So it is not surprising that even today some money winds up in the pockets of the participants. Some also ends up in the IAAF bank account, where it is used for the organizations's third world development program. Opening up the sport would generate even more money for such worthy endeavors, and for national federations already hard-pressed for cash needed to improve their own training facilities.
"It would also improve something else -- the sport's image," observes a seasoned member of the American track team. "We've been hyprocritical too long."