As I sit in front of my television tonight I can't help but to pinch myself. Last week I found myself in London and interacting with several athletes, mainly from the U.S. Track and Field Team. Being around this inspiring group of athletes was amazing and we shared stories, sparked college rivalries (I'm a UCLA Alum, and there are several USC athletes competing), and even took the Tube together through Central London. Now I'm watching several of my new "friends" winning medals and making Americans proud. However the best part of my time spent with these amazing physical specimens was the opportunity to get to know more about the sacrifice they made to make it to the London Olympics. While there are the well known and well paid professional athletes who competed (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, Andy Roddick) the majority of the U.S. athletes I interacted with are barely making ends meet. Unlike athletes in many other countries, American Olympians receive no direct support from the federal government. Our athletic heroes are poor -- seriously poor! In a survey conducted by the USA Track and Field Foundation you would be surprised to find the following:
• Approximately 50 percent of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorships, grants, prize money, etc)
• Approximately 20 percent of our athletes in the top 10 in the USA in their event make more than $50,000 annually.
• Athletes outside of a top 10 USA ranking, other than some sprinters, milers, and distance runners, can expect to face very limited (if any) income support
As I learned more about their financial conditions I became even more proud that Olympians were protesting IOC rules that limited their ability to promote the brands who helped them pay their bills in social media. The controversial "Rule 40" found in this document prohibit Olympians from mentioning or promoting any sponsor during the Olympic Games unless that sponsor is an official Olympic Sponsor. U.S. sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross, Nick Symonds and other U.S. Olympians took to Twitter to criticize Rule 40 under the #WeDemandChange hashtag to raise awareness of the absurd Rule 40. The clearly outdated Rule 40 has roots in the idea that Olympians should be amateur athletes which ended in 1992 when the U.S. fielded the U.S. Basketball Dream Team.
Limiting what an athlete can post on their own personal social media site shows that the IOC is clearly missing the mark with their "Social Media Policy." U.S. long distance runner Leo Manzano was directed by the IOC to remove a photograph of his running shoes from Facebook. This was the moment that drove the U.S. Olympic Track team to start the movement. Manzano posted on Twitter and Facebook: "I am very disappointed in Rule 40 of the USOC as I just had to take down my picture of my shoes and comments about their performance. This rule is very distracting to us athletes, and it takes away from our Olympic experience and training."
The IOC defends their policy though they will have to reconsider something more progressive in 2016. On the backs of athletes who compete for free the IOC are profiting off of what has now become a $6 billion industry. I love that the #WeDemandChange movement is becoming mainstream news and applaud their efforts to create awareness and change using via social media