Tag Archives: athletes



If you’re grumbling about the number of athletes who have opted out of or are still prevaricating about whether to compete in the Commonwealth Games, blame Usain Bolt. The most charismatic and globally popular sports star since Muhammad Ali has decided to skip the games’ individual sprint events and run in only the 4x100m relay. Bolt (pictured above) has redefined track in much the same way as Tiger Woods redefined golf and Michael Jordan basketball: not with his style, so much as his brand – his name, image and imprimatur sell goods, most unrelated to sport, to any market in the world. Last year, Bolt renewed his endorsement deal with Puma, which lies well behind adidas and Nike, the sports goods market leaders. The deal is worth $10 million over two years (until 2016) to Bolt, who also has promotional contracts with Virgin Media, Visa, Nissan, Gatorade, Swiss watchmaker Hublot and Soul Electronics with which Bolt will develop his own line of headphones. He has also published two books, pushing his early earnings to about $20 million.

So for him, the prize money available on the IAAF Diamond League circuit from which most athletes earn a stable living (winners are paid $10,000 per event) is negligible. Typically, Bolt will command an appearance fee of between $200,000 and $350,000 per meeting. Promoters may balk at this, but his appearance guarantees a full stadium. He alone would have conferred respectability and glamour on the Glasgow tournament. So why isn’t he interested?

A Commonwealth Games medal would not add commercial value to Bolt’s brand and, a defeat or disqualification (remember: he was DQ’d from the 2011 World Championships) would be damaging from a marketing perspective. Bolt’s declination is a big blow for the Commonwealth Games. But imagine the cost-benefit calculation behind the decision. The tournament has nowhere near the lustre of the Olympics, nor even the IAAF World Championships. Its television audience is relatively small and interest among the world’s richest economic nations – and hence the most prosperous markets for advertisers – is limited. The Commonwealth embraces some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Mozambique and Rwanda. Thirty-one of the member states have populations of 1.5 million or less.

So while there is a collective population of near two billion and a few fast-emerging economies, the games do not present an especially attractive proposition for advertisers. One can imagine the global corporations that pay Bolt wondering out loud whether it is worth risking his reputation in a tournament that counts for little. Those who reject this explanation as too cynical should recall the fuss Bolt kicked up last year when he was invited to participate in a post-Olympics event. HMRC, the British government’s tax service demanded its cut of his earnings. Because he spends so much of his time in the UK, he is liable to pay 50 per cent of his earnings in tax.

A tax amnesty was brokered for the 2012 Olympics, but Bolt was reluctant to return for only half his usual fee. Sports Minister Hugh Robertson was obliged to step in to help induce Bolt, though British taxpayers were understandably upset at the prospect of a multimillionaire athlete’s being excused paying tax, while they were forced to surrender a chunk of their wages to the government. Asked if it was because he would lose as much money as he would earn from running in London, Bolt replied: “That’s what my agent told me.” And, of course, agents are in business to make money. It may disappoint fans to learn that their heroes are motivated by much the same pecuniary incentives as everyone else, but sports stars are not idealists. The Chariots of Fire have long since bolted. Nowadays professional sportsmen and women are working for money. Bolt’s official position is not clear: he is apparently not injured but just hasn’t trained enough. His fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has also decided to miss the games. Yohan Blake followed Bolt’s example and pulled out of the Commonwealth Games. While Blake pulled up in a race last weekend, few believe it is an injury that is prompting his withdrawal: the double Olympic silver medallist said he could not put his preparations for Rio 2016 at risk. Translated, this is: “The Commonwealth Games are worthless. There is no money, prestige or any kind of benefit to be gained from winning a tupenny ha’penny medal at a third-rate Games.”

Glasgow 2014 will, for sure, be a specular success: it will be efficiently organized, well attended and viewed by television audiences all over the …. er, Commonwealth. It is just not a marketable product; it does not present a commercial showcase in which “brand ambassadors” can advertise their sponsors’ wares to an international market. Even if the individual competitors are enthusiastic about the event, their agents and sponsors will be deterring them. Bolt may be secretly disappointed: an appearance at a venue full of adoring fans where he can do his usual shtick in front of tv cameras and pick up another medal for his cabinet would not be an onerous task for him, even if he does end up weighing-in to the British taxman. But he isn’t in control: like other pro sports stars, he’s made a Faustian pact that renders him at the mercy of his corporate paymasters.

Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.

Should doping be allowed in sport?

Who believes athletes are squeaky-clean innocents whose most serious vice is a nicotine patch? Then why do people pretend to be surprised when we discover that some high-profile champion has been using dope?  Rarely a week goes by without some figure from sports returning a positive test.  Since 1988 when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold and chased back to Canada in disgrace, there have been many, many supposedly great athletes reduced to “cheats” after the discovery of banned substances.  Diego Maradona, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong and so many others have been involved in drugs scandals of some kind.

The lesson is clear: athletes across the whole spectrum of sport have indicated their preference to take drugs.  And, like it or not, we – and the media – encourage them.  Not obviously, of course.  But we demand athletic performances that make almost inhuman demands on the body, and are disappointed when we get less. What if we simply allowed athletes to use whatever substances they choose, then ask them to declare what they’ve been taking?  Then we could commission research, investigate the substances, their effectiveness, their side-effects and, where necessary, their dangers.  We could feed the information back to athletes and advise accordingly.  It would create a more open, honest and, most importantly, safer environment.  It’s not a popular idea and, in this video, I discuss it on Channel 5 news.