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Paying for gold: New Olympic medal bonus stirs debate

April 21, 2024

World Athletics has broken ranks with other sports federations in opting to pay athletes bonuses for medals at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Some deem this a breach of the Olympic spirit, while others think it’s long overdue.

German long jumper Malaika Mihambo poses with her Olympic gold medal
Athletes, like German long jumper Malaika Mihambo, could be in for a financial windfall in ParisImage: Anke Waelischmiller/Sven Simon/picture alliance

World Athletics seems to have poked a hornet's nest, with the federation's recent decision to pay athletes bonuses for Olympic medals sparking global debate.  Last week, the governing body of athletics announced that it would pay $50,000 (€46,800) for victories in each of the 48 athletics disciplines at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Paris (July 26 to August 11).

The organization said there will also be bonuses for silver and bronze at the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. This is the first time in the 128-year history of the modern Olympic Games that a world federation of a single sport has offered bonuses for Olympic performances.

"I think it is important we start somewhere and make sure some of the revenues generated by our athletes at the Olympic Games are directly returned to those who make the Games the global spectacle that it is," said World Athletics President Sebastian Coe. Such sentiment from Coe, who won gold in the 1,500 meters at the 1980 and 1984 Games medal, risks ruffling the feathers of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as well as the governing bodies of other sports.

World Athletics president Sebastian Coe at a press conference
Sebastian Coe and World Athletics have aggravated other sporting federations with their stanceImage: Handout via World Athletics/REUTERS

Cycling, through its body the UCI, has already responded. "The Olympic spirit is to share revenues and have more athletes compete worldwide," its president David Lappartient said. "Not only put all the money on the top athletes but spread the money. If we concentrate money on top athletes, a lot of opportunities will disappear for athletes all over the world."

Disparity between sports

The IOC's model relies on solidarity. All but 10% of the revenue from the Olympic Games goes to organizations of the Olympic Movement — primarily to the world federations of the sports and the National Olympic Committees. The IOC uses the rest to pay for its administration and the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

After the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo, the IOC distributed around $540 million dollars (€505 million) to 28 world federations. World Athletics received the most: almost $40 million. At the bottom of the list were the world associations for taekwondo, golf and rugby, with just under $13 million each. In other words, a financial disparity between the sports already exists.

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It is a disparity highlighted by Great Britain's rowing legend, Steve Redgrave. "Most of the other sports won't be able to follow this. You're making this into a two-tier process," he told the Daily Mail. 

The ITF, which governs tennis, followed a similar theme of collaboration in response to questions from DW. The tennis federation made it clear that it would only change its approach, if at all, in consultation with the IOC and ASOIF - the alliance of federations represented at the Summer Games. 

"The opportunity to compete for the prestige of an Olympic medal has always been a unique and special incentive for players to take part in the Games. If a change to this was to be considered in the future, any decision would be made in consultation with the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations and the International Olympic Committee." 

FIBA (the basketball federation) would say only that it "has no plans to introduce [Olympic] prize money in basketball."

An aerial shot of the 100 meter final at Tokyo 2021
Athletics has long been one of the biggest attractions of the OlympicsImage: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

It seems that the IOC, the world sports federations and the National Olympic Committees were all surprised by the initiative of Coe and his organization. "They create a problem because now other sports are clearly going to get some scrutiny or even pressure from athletes saying 'well what about our sport, how can this sport do it and not us?'," said British Olympic CEO Andy Anson.

Basketball player Johannes Herber, managing director of Germany's association of athletes, Athleten Deutschland, felt the move to pay athletes for medals would act as "wake-up call for the IOC and the other world federations to finally give athletes a share of the income they generate." But the German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) reacted a little more calmly. It is "the responsibility of the world athletics federation how it distributes the income it receives from the IOC", said the umbrella organization of German sport.

Bonuses on top

The DOSB backed the German Sports Aid Foundation's awarding of bonuses to athletes who finished in first to eighth place at the Olympic Games. Sporthilfe, which is financed by public funds, donations, lottery income and charity events, has been supporting German athletes for over 50 years. According to its own figures, it will distribute around €23 million in 2024, more than ever before. There will be €20,000 for gold in Paris, €15,000 for silver and €10,000 for bronze. Even eighth place will get €1500. This applies to all sports.

"The Sporthilfe bonuses also apply to track and field athletes - regardless of whether they are rewarded for their success by associations, private sponsors or other third parties," Sporthilfe said in response to a DW inquiry. In other words, German athletics winners at Paris 2024 could double up, with €50,000 gold bonus from World Athletics and a top up €20,000 from Sporthilfe to sweeten the deal.

This article was adapted from German with controbutions from Jonathan Crane.