The Unglamorous Realities of Professional Runners
The legitimacy of track and field is often questioned by outsiders. Compared to other professional sports, like the NBA or the NFL, salaries aren’t public information. Common assumptions state that running has no strategy or competitiveness to it.
Due to misconceptions and stereotypes, professional running is often tossed aside when talking about sports. It is also far too common in the running world that athletes train full-time as professionals, but receive no salary from a shoe company like Nike or New Balance.
For athletes who do sign a contract with a company, oftentimes the compensation is very low, or they just get an offer to wear a kit to a certain meet. Many professionals have to depend on other sources of income to stay afloat. Travel, medical treatment, and housing are all typical expenses that the athletes themselves need to cover. A lot of the most competitive meets, like the Diamond League, tend to be overseas, which can be expensive to travel to on a regular basis.
Professional contracts typically include strict obligations and clauses — such as racing a certain amount of meets in a given year. If this isn’t met, the company likely will reduce the athlete’s base salary. For athletes who are struggling with chronic injuries or mental health issues they may be in a situation where they have to choose between their personal health or financial stability.
A harrowing example of this was the life of the professional runner Emily Infeld. Infeld was somewhat forced to return to Portland and train with Nike, even though she was dealing with an online stalker that was sexually harrasing her.
Infeld told ESPN that she was fearful her salary would be cut if she didn’t run; "It was implied to me that if I didn't return to race there was a high likelihood that my pay would be cut, without consideration for the pandemic or my situation."
When there are no opportunities to compete, athletes typically don’t get paid. Due to the global COVID pandemic, many professional runners were scrambling to make ends meet since competition was shut down. In fact, according to U.S Today, about 110 Olympic hopefuls created GoFundMe Pages to help fund their athletic endeavors.
Running fast times isn’t always enough for companies to want to sign an athlete. Even the top athletes in the world, ones that break records or win Olympic Medals, may be in a situation where they are tight on money. The Track and Field Athletes Association reports that around 50% of U.S. track athletes who rank in the Top 10 in their event made less than $15,000 annually from their sport as of 2014.
Athletes typically have to rely on endorsements, appearance fees, and prize money. Many are embracing social media as well for another solid stream of revenue, which seems to be the way the industry is headed.
A solely dependent athlete identity is becoming less important to sponsors.
Canadian Half Marathon record holder Rory Linkletter knows this all too well. Recently he left Hoka and became an unsponsored professional runner. While the decision was hard, Linkletter knew that a more intimate and personal training approach would benefit him in the long run. Without his other streams of income, this decision may not have been feasible.
“There are so many ways we can reach a company further and become more valuable to them than just running fast. I think we are really belittling what we can bring to these companies if we only focus on results and not about who we are as people for the community at large,” Linkletter explained..
“Becoming a father was one of my biggest fears when leaving my contract. I didn’t want to put my family in a situation where we were not as stable because getting that guaranteed contract money is a nice security blanket for someone who considers themselves a professional runner,” said Linkletter.
“It might have not been possible if there had not been two opportunities that popped up right around the time I contemplated my options. I did feel trapped for a little bit because I am now a father, and my number one responsibility is my family,”
The governing bodies of track and field do assist athletes financially. Linkletter noted that Athletics Canada gave him a stipend for medical treatment, which was helpful. However, stipends from these institutions tend to be small and only granted towards the top athletes.
USATF also provides grants that are given to athletes in need and list five on the foundation’s website: the Stephen A. Schwarzman grant, the John W. James Grant, Pitch Johnson Travel grants, the Frederick W. Lambert Memorial Grant, and maternity grants.
For athletes who identify as female, the maternity grant requires an individual to be ranked top 20 in the U.S, top 50 in the world, or top 5 in the world, according to the USATF Foundation website. A pattern of financial stability in American track and field tends to line up with elite performance only.
For a newer professional runner with little experience racing at the elite level, these payouts may not provide a lot of support. Companies like Tracksmith, however, recognize that financial stability is a widespread problem within the sport, and have made it a priority to assist athletes who are in need.
During the Olympic Trials this past summer, Tracksmith had 31 athletes compete as part of their Amateur Support Program. The intention of the program is to help support athletes who are close to signing contracts.
During the Trials, Tracksmith rented a house near Hayward Field for athletes to stay at during the week, as well as providing shuttles that traveled to nearby facilities, grocery stores, or the airport. They even had physical therapists and medical professionals available for athletes to utilize.
For some athletes, if they don’t have enough financial support, they have to stop chasing their dreams on the track. The workload of training full time as a professional but not receiving any compensation can put individuals in a tough spot where ultimately they have to sacrifice chasing their dreams for their livelihood.
Jasmine Todd, a world silver medalist in the 4x100 relay, spoke about the financial realities of being an unsponsored professional track athlete on the Citius Magazine podcast:
“I want to shed light on the fact that these are very real scenarios. Right now I am staying with my aunt on her futon. It’s not the best place for recovery when your body is going through so many strenuous workouts. For the goals I know I can do and hit, I need to allow my body to properly recover.”
Salary talk is minimal in track and often is kept confidential, which can be detrimental to athletes. From an outsider perspective, an athlete may be thriving on the track, but realistically some of these runners are under extreme financial stress. Many may be scrambling to pay the bills or finding a safe place to live.