The men’s 800 meters was part of this morning’s conclusion to the Aviva London Grand Prix. US champion Nick Symmonds wanted to be in that race, but wasn’t able to be. This was not because he wasn’t good enough–only three of the eleven entrants rank higher than Symmonds on the 2012 world list–but because the meet director didn’t want him.
Via Nick Symmonds’ twitter, posted yesterday:
London DL meeting begins tonight! I was gonna race the 800 but the meet director, Ian Stewart, called me “a liability” lol. ?#TheIrritant?
And from his Facebook page, also posted yesterday:
For those of you wondering why I am not racing in tomorrow’s London Diamond League 800m: I was told by the meet director, Ian Stewart, that I am “a liability” and that I am not allowed to race in any of his meetings. Apparently, he told the same thing to Lolo Jones, one of the most popular athletes in the world of Athletics. People like Mr. Stewart have very antiquated ideas about how the sport of Track and Field should be governed and are holding our sport back. Fortunately, most meet directors do not share his myopic opinions. Therefore, instead of racing at cold, rainy Crystal Palace (London), I will be racing on one of the fastest tracks in one of the most beautiful places in the world on July 20th. MONACO 800m!!!
What on earth could this all be about?
In case you’ve been living under a rock, last fall Symmonds created a Facebook page, I’m tired of USATF and IAAF crippling our sport. The crippling he speaks of is “ridiculously outdated regulations that our governing bodies have in place to control the way corporations are able to advertise in our sport”, which in turn severely limits the income of the athletes. He expounded on the topic at Flotrack. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic, by all means follow the links and read up.
This issue about sponsorship isn’t about gettting rich, it’s about being able to stay out of poverty–as CNN recently reported, “only 50% of American track and field athletes who are ranked in the top ten in the nation in their event earn more than $15,000 a year in income from the sport”.
Symmonds quickly found support. Within two days, his Facebook page on this issue gained 5,000 friends. The nascent Track and Field Athletes Association, an American athlete union of sorts, also benefitted from the base becoming fired up and membership soared.
In January, Symmonds auctioned off ad space on his shoulder (via temporary tattoo) and Hanson Dodge Creative, a Milwaukee-based advertising and design agency, won with an $11,000 bid. When IAAF and IOC regulations require–which is in nearly every race–he covers it up with a strip of athletic tape. That practice probably calls even more attention to it than if it simply were left uncovered.
It appears that Symmonds is not welcome at any meet organized by Ian Stewart because of his guerrilla marketing tactics. Lolo Jones has done some of the same (albeit with less publicity), such as wearing a headband bearing the logo of her secondary sponsor Red Bull, and is similarly barred from any of Stewart’s meets. Former American Record holder Chris Solinsky has indicated that Jerry Schumacher’s entire Portland-based group of distance runners is also barred from the meet, although the reasons for that are unknown.
Should we be shocked by this? Hardly, and because this was telegraphed to us way back in December at the USATF annual convention.
At that convention, a meeting was organized by the Athlete’s Advisory Council, which is supposed to be the liason between the athletes and USATF leadership, to discuss the whole issue of uniforms, sponsorships and so forth. The leaders among the athletes were Symmonds, Lauren Fleshman and Adam Nelson, but there were many athletes in attendance. From Running Times:
It wasn’t quite the NBA lockout, but athletes asserted their rights like never before at the USATF annual meeting held Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in St. Louis. The assembly, which brings together officials in all facets of the sport from around the country, is usually a fairly staid, quiet affair, with rule changes discussed in small, lengthy meetings of small committees. But this year’s meeting of the Athletes Advisory Council was anything but small and certainly not staid.
Much of the ire of these groups was directed at rules that limited the number and size of logos on an athlete’s uniform, or body parts, which gained huge publicity last month when Lauren Fleshman was forced to scrub off temporary tattoos of her PickyBars company logo just before the start of the ING New York City Marathon. The conflict was exacerbated when participants in the Dec. 10 USATF club cross country championships in Seattle were told they would have to adhere to the logo restrictions as well. This was all supposed to be addressed at the AAC meeting Friday, but no one expected the fireworks that erupted there.
I wasn’t there, but I’ve communicated with several people who were.
Whereas athletes had been told they’d be able to ask questions, make comments and have a conversation, the first hour of the meeting consisted of various muckety-mucks lecturing the athletes about the rules and that they’ll just have to make do with how things are. USATF president Stephanie Hightower “scolded us angrily” and when Nick calmly but firmly spoke up for the athletes, she “just yelled louder and wagged her finger more”.
Among those muckety-mucks who talked down to the assembled athletes was, you guessed it, Ian Stewart. Quotes attributed to him at that meeting include “you say you’re professionals; act like it” and “if you think you’re gonna walk into one of our track meets wearing Axer across your chest, it’s not gonna happen”. The gist of his remarks were summed up as “if you don’t play by my rules, you’re not getting into my meets”. He controls all of the meets in the UK’s Aviva series, which includes the upcoming Birmingham stop on the Diamond League tour.
Stewart, of course, is British, and only organizes British meets. Why in the world was he at the USATF convention? Because his wife is none other than USATF president Stephanie Hightower.
So is Stewart within his rights to not invite athletes? Absolutely. These meets are invitationals, after all. There are always politics involved in who gets in–agent connections, money, sponsorship agreements, and so forth. But this is a pretty naked attempt to push around several athletes. And does make us wonder a bit about the legitimacy of the Diamond League points races; the IAAF has farmed out its top tour to meet promoters and ceded most of the control. This kind of stuff is the natural result.
Stewart, for his part, may have stepped on the wrong person’s toes and not even realized it. The first “muckety-muck” to speak at that AAC meeting in December was Bob Hersh. He quietly but firmly explained two things. First, that USATF is under no obligation whatsoever to enforce IAAF (international) rules at USATF (national) meets. Second, that the IAAF has slightly loosened uniform rules for 2012 to allow space for a second sponsor logo. He clearly appeared to be on the athletes’ side in this dispute.
And just a few months prior to that USATF convention, Hersh was elected first vice president of the IAAF, making him the #2 most powerful person in track and field. “Vindictive” is not a word that has ever been associated with Hersh, but let’s say that it’s better to have the IAAF’s first VP agreeing with you than disagreeing with you.
A side note: Symmonds has been called the modern incarnation of Steve Prefontaine. Like Pre did, he’s a forceful personality who lives and trains in the Eugene area and has led a fight for athletes’ rights against self-serving administrators. When Prefontaine let up at the end of the 1972 Olympic 5000 meters and fell from third to fourth, who ended up winning that bronze medal? None other than Ian Stewart. Coincidence to be sure, but a remarkable one.