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Track Will Be First Sport to Pay Olympic Gold Medalists

Track and field will be the first sport to give direct cash payments for Olympic gold medals, the sport’s federation announced Wednesday.

For decades, the Olympics trumpeted the ideal of amateurism. It took pride in being a competition where elite athletes battled for nothing more than the joy of representing their country.

Amateurism was touted as the best way to keep sports clean, fair and honest. “Professionalism” was looked down on as vulgar and mercenary. But the notion of amateurism at the Olympics has eroded over the last three decades, as professional athletes have been allowed to participate.

Now World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, will break new ground by making payments to competitors more straightforward: All individual gold medalists in the sport at the Paris Games this summer will receive $50,000. (Winning relay teams will share the money.) The federation said it would begin paying silver and bronze medalists lesser amounts in 2028.

The federation president, Sebastian Coe, a two-time gold medalist in the amateur era, called the decision “a pivotal moment for World Athletics and the sport of athletics as a whole, underscoring our commitment to empowering the athletes and recognizing the critical role they play in the success of any Olympic Games.”

Mr. Coe is considered a leading candidate to be the next president of the International Olympic Committee, and could perhaps pave the way for an expansion of the payments to other sports.

Depending on the athlete, the prize money could be a significant reward. “On the surface, $50,000 probably does not seem like a great deal of money for an Olympic champion,” said Kyle Merber, a former elite miler and a contributor to the track and field news website Citius Mag. “But for many of the individuals in non-premier events, who perhaps compete for a smaller country, this money can go a long way.”

The ideal of amateurism, which developed as a concept in the 19th century, was also a convenient way for the Olympics to keep out working-class athletes who couldn’t afford to skip work to compete against “gentlemen.”

As professional leagues in many sports started popping up around the world in the 20th century, the Olympics drew a hard line, disqualifying any athletes who were tainted by accepting filthy lucre. Most notoriously, the American Jim Thorpe, regarded as the world’s greatest athlete, was stripped of his two gold medals from the 1912 Games when it was discovered he had accepted a few dollars for playing professional baseball some years before. (That decision was not fully reversed until 2022.)

Amateurism was taken extremely seriously. A seemingly harmless proposal to allow amateurs and professionals to compete in the same events was described as a “radical scheme” in The New York Times in 1913.

Eventually, as the Olympics grew in global popularity, amateurism allowed the International Olympic Committee to benefit from essentially free labor and keep as much of the billions of dollars in TV money it earned as possible.

Amateurism also gave the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries a big edge in international competition after World War II. Since there were nominally no professional athletes in a Communist system, entrants from those countries could compete in the Olympics through their 20s and 30s while earning a living as “coaches” or “teachers.” Western athletes often quit competing in the Games after college to play professionally or get a real job. Opponents of the system denounced it as “shamateurism.”

With the Olympic committee eager to lure the world’s best athletes to the Games, strict amateurism rules started to ease in the 1990s. It worked, most notably with the likes of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson playing basketball for the United States. But the newly arrived professional athletes still were not directly paid prize money for their medals, although certain national federations often offered cash bonuses.

Amateurism is no longer the watchword of the Olympic movement: The word appears nowhere in the 112 pages of the current Olympic Charter. Much like athletes competing in the nude, as they did at the ancient Greek Games, Olympic amateurism may be slipping into history.

Scott Cacciola contributed reporting.

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