Six-time U.S. 800-meter champion Nick Symmonds knows that succeeding as a professional Track and Field athlete requires an almost pathological drive toward a goal that thousands are focused on, and that tens of thousands dream about. It also requires a lot of money, $50,000 to $100,000, “bare minimum” for training, travel, facilities, and coaching — “on top of what he or she needs to live.”
That's why Symmonds is selling nine square-inches of his skin (specifically his left shoulder) to the highest bidder this week in an eBay auction that he hopes will help him reach his third Olympics and empower other track athletes to follow his lead.
“I don’t get out of bed every morning with the thought of racing like I did when I was 22,” Symmonds, now 32, admits from his home in Oregon. “I don’t have that same testosterone pumping through my veins, like I have to prove to everyone how good I am at running. How fast I am. I’ve done that. At this point, my running is more about these bigger issues. It’s about re-creating track and field so it has a better future. “
That goal is why Symmonds made the bold maneuver to sit out last year’s World Championships, banned from the U.S. team after winning the national title because he wasn’t willing to wear a Nike swoosh instead of the Brooks logo he’s sponsored under. It’s also why he’s filed an antitrust lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track and Field in January for only allowing sponsors approved by the governing bodies. His Run Gum brand, which provided income for 20 athletes on one- and two-day contracts at last year’s U.S. championships, didn’t make the list.
Symmonds argues that for 17 days in August during this year’s Olympics, the International Olympic Committee will reap $4 billion in revenue through exclusive sponsorships, TV rights, tickets, food, and beverage sales. While 50 percent of the revenue share is common among leagues like the NBA, the 10,500 athletes competing in Rio will see a collective $0. Yes, they are offered an international platform to compete to grow their brand, and for athletes in prestige events like Usain Bolt, that may be enough. For the rest, it represents roughly $190,000 per athlete in a 50/50 model that the IOC is pocketing.
If they pay that share, Symmonds says, “suddenly I’m part of that sponsorship deal and it’s my job to make sure they get a great return on their investment. Then I’m cheering for Coke and I’m helping Coke out. As it is now, I don’t see any of that money, so I don’t really care about Coke. They’re not helping me get to the Olympic Games. Whoever wins this eBay auction is helping me get to the Olympic Games.”
Symmonds sold the same nine inches to Hanson Dodge Creative in 2012 for $11,100, which president Tim Dodge says touched a chord with people and created “an explosion that was phenomenal for us.” It brought in a hundred times the media impressions he and his team thought they would get from what he admits was a fun social experiment. Dodge has maintained a relationship with Symmonds, which now includes fly-fishing trips, and his agency has already re-upped their deal for the 2016 season (see: Nick’s forearm) because it understands the immense value that his skin represents and believes athletes should capitalize while they can.
Instead, “the model is broken,” says Symmonds. The money and the power are with the governing bodies. He was told last season that as a tier one athlete he could expect between $25,000 and $35,000 directly from Team USA. “When it was all said and done, my 1099 from them said $722,” he says.
Symmonds, who finished fifth at the London Games and won silver at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, has redefined his goals as an athlete of a certain age. He can now funnel that pathological drive and focus toward creating a better atmosphere for the sport, and, if he had his way, dissolving the USATF entirely.
“When I was younger, crossing the finish line first was the definition of success because it proved I was as good as I thought I was,” he says. “Now success is utilizing my body and my brain to further this cause of remaking Track and Field.” However, he understands that the better he runs, the bigger the platform he has and the louder and more credible his voice can be. So he will train harder this year, he will push himself further, and he will get up on those mornings when he would rather stay in bed in order to work toward benefits he knows he’ll never see.
“I get more excited about telling these governing bodies to take a hike than I do about the actual competitions,” Symmonds says. “Some people would argue that’s unhealthy, but I think it’s quite healthy for an athlete at 32 years of age. You have to find that fire, that chip on your shoulder that allows you to compete at the very highest level. It worked for me last year. I certainly think it’s going to work for me this year.”