On Your Marks, Get Set, Unionise!

For years, international track and field athletes have watched the decisions that shape their sport made by elite organisations while their right to protest was curtailed – so now, they've decided to unionise.

In November 2019, the International Association of Athletics Federations (now World Athletics, or WA) announced it would be cutting select events from the most premiere track and field series – the Diamond League. Effective for 2020, they planned to cut the 200 metre, 3,000 metre steeple chase, discus, and triple jump events. 

In response, British sprinter Adam Gemili posted a GIF of Tom Hanks mouthing “really?” on his Twitter account. Scores of top athletes around the world also chimed in on social media expressing shock, anger, and frustration. Many had experience working under a governing structure that they knew failed to consider the most integral workers in the sport: the athletes. 

“World Athletics said they did a study but they didn’t show us any data,” Gemili said, responding to their reasons for cutting such events. “No one was consulted. They didn’t ask us, ‘What did you think of this? What did you think of that?’” 

Gemili, a two-time Olympian, European champion, and world champion, among other accolades, began talking to other athletes around the world. One of the first athletes he consulted was his training partner, U.S. triple jumper and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Christian Taylor. Both grew up in the sport and saw a trend that needed fixing. “Me and Christian agreed,” Gemili said, “athletes have always been at the bottom of the pecking order, and that needs to change.” 

And so they began organising. Taylor spearheaded the initial efforts and volunteered to be the inaugural president of a new organisation with Emma Coburn, another U.S. athlete, at his side. They reached out to athletes they knew around the world to form the Athletics Association, which officially launched in July 2020.

The Athletics Association is the first ever athlete-led and athlete-run international association advocating for a seat at the table with the international governing bodies and a say in the working conditions of track and field. 

Other sports have unions and players associations, from the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) in England to the powerful bodies in America’s NFL, NBA and MLB. But the particulars of track and field have traditionally made organising in this sport more difficult.

Although national and international governing bodies oversee many of the decisions made regarding sport, they are not employers. Athletes are contract workers, who sign deals with shoe and apparel companies. These are notoriously secretive and often highly specific, carrying reduction clauses and complex bonus structures. 

Further, in comparison to footballers, basketball players, and athletes from other sports, track and field athletes earn much less money to begin with – and large fractions of their earnings can be reduced if they do not perform often enough or to high enough standards. 

It is a common misconception that all of the athletes who make it to the world stage at the Olympic Games earn considerable riches. This is a notion, as Rob Koehler put it, that “couldn’t be farther from the truth.” Koehler, who has been working in sport for decades, recently left his position at the World Anti-Doping Association to serve as the Director General of Global Athlete, an athlete-led movement focused on increasing athlete representation in sport.

A number of major organisations, such as the WA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have athlete commissions – but these chosen athletes often have little input, and have to sign charters that limit their rights in speaking up. They are, in the old labour parlance, company unions.

Koehler, by contrast, sees genuine collective bargaining as a means of ensuring athletes’ voices get heard. “Athletes need better representation,” he said. “They need legal and institutional support, because without it they face compromising situations. Imagine if gymnasts in the U.S. and Britain had a place to turn for legal support,” he said, referring recent sex abuse scandals in both countries.  

But beyond basic safety measures, and precarious contracts, track and field athletes are stifled by a number of other regulations. Gemili, along with British long-distance running icon, Mo Farah, and World Champion heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, have publicised the ways that the Olympic Charter continues to work against the interests of athletes. 

Partnering with the law firm Brandsmiths in 2019, they negotiated with the British Olympics Association (BOA) to allow for better freedom to showcase their endorsements. Rule 40, as it is known, restricts forms of marketing to protect and solely promote the IOC’s twelve major corporate sponsors.

This means that athletes who are normally sponsored by Nike, for example, must wear Adidas at the Olympics because their national federation is sponsored by a different brand. Meanwhile, corporate partners can maximise profits without limitation.

“The main idea for attacking Rule 40 was just allowing more rights for athletes going into the Olympics,” Gemili said. Their public case garnered enough attention and scrutiny that the BOA made concessions and opened up opportunities for athletes to share messages from their sponsors.

The BOA did not concede to all of their demands, but the British athletes at the helm of this movement made clear that they have power and can make their voices heard. “We’re the best people to get involved in the decisions around sports because we live it and breathe it every day,” Gemili said, before reflecting, “so why would you not include us in the decision making?”

Athletes have been made keenly aware just how deliberately they are kept out of these decisions. This is why organising has proven necessary. And in the midst of a global pandemic, an unprecedented cancellation of the Olympics, and global reckonings with racism through the Black Lives Matter movement, there is no better time to change the narrative. 

The Athletics Association is trying to be a vehicle to do just that. The board is comprised of athletes from a range of athletic disciplines and from every continent. More notably, perhaps, is the significant amount of top-tier athletes with numerous Olympic and World Championship medals to their names, as well as significant public followings.

U.S. athlete Alyson Felix, for instance, is the only female track and field athlete to win six Olympic gold medals. Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce adds 17 additional global championship gold medals to the mix. The board alone could furnish a museum with their collective hardware.   

Structured much like a labour union, they expect a massive membership drive in the beginning of next year. Members will pay modest dues and be encouraged to get involved in organising efforts as well as join working groups that focus on specific issues.

As the association is operating in and across so many languages, athletes will often will need to tap into their multilingual networks to have surveys and documents translated. They already did so when creating their constitution and when they wrote and sent out a survey about how competitors were affected by the coronavirus pandemic.    

One of the first major issues the Athletics Association is campaigning over is a reform of Rule 50. Rule 50 forbids athletes from peacefully protesting at the Olympic Games and was famously broken by Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they protested at the 1968 Olympic Games. Carlos and Smith, revered now, were admonished for their action, criticised publicly, and suspended from the Games. 

In recent years, governing bodies have celebrated their symbolic actions, demonstrating a hypocrisy athletes are keen to point out. “The same organisations that celebrated those symbols from 50 years ago haven’t changed anything,” Taylor said. “So what does that mean? This is something that motivates us because I don’t think it’s fair that organisations are using this symbol and they haven’t changed anything.”

Now, these athletes are organising to demand change, and receiving overwhelmingly positive responses from their colleagues. There have been some skeptics, mostly older athletes who have been in the sport for years and see fighting for change as a futile effort. But many have reached out to the organisers at the forefront of the Athletics Association to get express gratitude and get involved.

But this is a major departure from efforts to protest and organise in the past. The Athletics Association is the first time, as Gemili puts it, that “the sport has seen anything like this. We’ve never had a union.” He is right. And the potential power in solidarity is still yet to be seen.