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I'm Tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport

I'm Tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Spo
Those of you who follow me on Facebook and Twitter (@nsymm800) know that I have been extremely vocal over the last few days about something that I feel is a huge injustice in the sport of track and field. I am specifically referring to the ridiculously outdated regulations that our governing bodies have in place to control the way corporations are able to advertise in our sport. Many fans do not realize how limited the sponsorship opportunities are for track and field athletes. These limitations are not born of a lack of interest from corporations, but rather of the rules set in place by the United States Track and Field Association (USATF) and the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF). The current rules state:

USATF Uniform Guidelines:

The USATF Athlete uniform policy (hereinafter "Guidelines") allows club names and a manufacturer's name/logo to be displayed on an Athlete's competition and warm-up attire. The size of all logos must comply with the below Guidelines.

The competition and warm-up attire of Athletes may only have advertising and/or identification as permitted under these Guidelines. Any advertising or other identification on such attire not specifically permitted under these Guidelines is strictly prohibited and will constitute a breach of these Guidelines. Any other advertising on or by or otherwise associated with an Athlete is prohibited, including but not limited to, body painting, tattoos, jewelry, hair dying, hair shaving, the use of any flags, banners, T-shirts, hats, and any other form of display of advertising.

IAAF Advertising Regulations: Any other Advertising on or by or otherwise associated with an Athlete is prohibited, including but not limited to body painting, tattoos, jewellery, hair dying, hair shaving, the use of any flags, banners, T-shirts, hats and any other form of display of Advertising. No advertising or display of Sponsors of the Athletes in the form of "an Athlete x sponsored by company y" or similar may be displayed or appear on the Athletes or otherwise anywhere in the Competition Site.

As an athlete that has been involved in track and field for 14 years and has made a career as a professional runner for 6 of those years I can say, with absolute conviction, that these regulations are the biggest problem with our sport today. Not a week goes by that I don't hear someone involved in track and field complain that "our sport is dying." Athletes, coaches, agents, fans--few are happy with where we are currently. There is much talk about how American track and field has seen a huge resurgence in the last decade. I certainly believe this to be true from a talent standpoint, but from a financial standpoint we are existing in one of the harshest environments the sport has ever known. Each year the list of professional track meets available to participate shrinks. This is due in part to the state of global economics, but in even larger part to track and field's waning popularity. Today, prize money that could once be had at many meets no longer exists. The athletes bear the brunt of this loss, and is there a way for them to pursue corporate sponsorships to help recoup the lost revenue? No. Believe me, I have tried.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of businesses out there that love track and field and would seize the opportunity to invest in the athletes and the future of the sport. These businesses, however, are not going to invest their advertising dollars someplace where they won't see a return on them. As a small business owner myself, I would cherish the opportunity to sponsor an up-and-coming athlete or even to use my own career to help promote my business. Why would I, though, when athletes are not allowed to display ANY form of advertisement on their uniforms or bodies? The only advertising allowed on an athlete's body is that of their club and clothing manufacturers, and even these have absurd rules limiting where they can be placed and how large they can be. Do Nike, adidas, ASICS, Puma, New Balance, etc. care that they are being bullied by the USATF and IAAF? Or, perhaps, I am being too naïve: It could be that the shoe companies agree to have their logo shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp so long as USATF and IAAF ensure that it can be the ONLY logo there. If that is the case, then let me pose this question: Does Chevrolet try to tell Jeff Gordon that he can't put other companies' decals on their car? Of course not, becausethat company understands that increased corporate sponsorship brings in more money to the sport, which allows it to grow and create more fans, who will pack the stands to watch Jeff Gordon's Chevy own the track. Which is more valuable: Being the only sponsor displayed and advertising to a very small audience or being one of many sponsors and advertising to an enormous audience? Obviously, the latter is exponentially more valuable. NASCAR, the PGA, triathletes, and almost every major sport in the world understand this, so why is track and field the only sport still being run as if it's for amateurs? From a business standpoint, new fans equal new dollars, which leads to growth. And what better way to gain new fans than through corporate sponsorships of individual athletes!

A great example of this involves a company I have been sponsored by for several years: Melaleuca. This wellness company based in Idaho believed in me enough to take a chance on sponsoring me early in my career even though they knew I would not be able to wear their logo anywhere while I was competing, a restriction that most companies are unwilling to accept. For Melaleuca, my endorsement of their products and my attendance at the annual convention was worth their investment. In return,I received a modest amount of financial assistance, which helped me continue to train--but more important--this relationship allowed me to gain literally millions of fans. The entire Melaleuca family has gotten behind me. When I went to their annual convention, the crowd went crazy. People were interested to learn more about me and, in consequence, the sport of track and field because now they had a personal connection to someone who they could follow. As I shook hands and signed autographs, people asked how they could follow me during my summer racing season. "Via my website," I replied--the same website that has a link to the TV schedule and/or internet streaming site that broadcasts the races. (The meet sponsors can thank me later). It often only takes one personal connection with a pro to get a new fan to tune in and watch an entire track meet, just to see how their favorite athlete performs. Athlete sponsorships create new personal relationships and give entire companies full of people a vested interest in the sport of track and field.

I would never have landed the Melaleuca sponsorship without the help of my great agent, Chris Layne. However, most agents will not take on new athletes who are unlikely to land a major shoe deal. So what happens to these athletes? Currently, they are forced to live a fine balance between working a part-time job and training full-time. Though I'm sure most of them know of small businesses that would be willing to sponsor them, the athletes have no way of compensating the sponsor by offering advertising space. As it is now, USATF and IAAF essentially own our entire bodies, which they can use as rentable billboards to sell for advertising dollars. They take their cut of the sponsorship money and let what is left trickle down to the athletes in the form of prize money. I am forced to endorse the companies that they tell me to by wearing giant bib numbers that bear the meet sponsor's name on it, but I am not allowed to endorse the companies that I wish to endorse on the track. I feel that this is a huge violation of my First Amendment rights. I am not opposed to the USATF and IAAF continuing to work with large corporate sponsors such as Nike, Samsung, ING, etc., especially since these sponsors are pretty much all that are keeping professional track and field alive right now. I am also not opposed to USATF and IAAF taking what they need to continue operating, because we do need a governing body. However, there must be some balance, here and as it stands, the athletes' rights are being trampled on.

When I have brought up my frustrations with these rules in the past, I have heard several responses. The first and most common response from the USATF is that they are just going along with the IAAF rules. Since when does the greatest nation in the world kowtow to an international governing body, especially when that governing body is committing an egregious offense? The United States Track and Field Team is the most talented collection of athletes in the world, and we send more participants to the World Championships and Olympic Games than any other country. We are powerful and our voice will be heard, if only we have the courage to speak up.

As I have stated, I've been in this sport for many years. So, why am I speaking up now? For three reasons.

First, the IAAF has overstepped its bounds once again, this time in regard to women's records. Now, women that run with men in races are not eligible to qualify for records, even if they produce the fastest time. This means that Paula Radcliffe's Marathon World Record of 2:15:25 is no longer recognized as such. Many people, including myself, are outraged at this new rule. The season of discontent is upon us and the time for change is now.

Second, with the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking sites, it is much faster and easier to communicate and to have one's voice heard. Never before has one person's opinion been so easy to distribute to the masses. We witnessed the power of social media all over North Africa and the Middle East as entire regimes were toppled through the coming together of a common sentiment. Last week I started a group on Facebook called "I am tired of USATF and IAAF Crippling Our Sport" and encouraged like-minded people and my Facebook "friends" to join. In two days, this group grew from zero to 4,000 members. A true dialogue on the subject has begun--and it includes both athletes and fans.

Third, I am getting older. I am no longer the new kid on the block, the rube waking up and trying to clear the sleep from his eyes. I have witnessed the effects of these antiquated regulations for myself and spoken with friends who agree that they are contributing to the deterioration of the sport we cherish. I love running and want to continue to compete as long as I can, but at 27 I am beginning to understand that my career must one day come to an end. I believe in the campground rule, "Leave it better than you found it," and I don't want to leave the sport I love to the next generation in its current state.

I understand that there is much tradition and history in track and field and that its purity needs to be maintained. However, if these rules are not altered and brought into the 21st century, we may not have a sport to protect for much longer. There is a cancerous tumor in the sport of track and field and its name is over-regulation.

Click here to join our Facebook group dedicated to addressing this issue and others.

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