An athlete is clearly what you are on the track, the training, the eating clean, and ultimately the performance on race day. But does being a professional athlete encompass more than that?
I’ve had this discussion many times, and even my own thinking on the matter has evolved over time. I used to be very much in the camp of focus entirely on the training, and the monetary rewards, the sponsorships, the free kit, that will all come afterwards. I had this belief for a very long time, and this kind of thinking is fine if you have the talent level of someone like Jess Ennis or Renaud Lavillenie. You become World number one and the sponsors gather around you and make sure you’re taken care of.
What about the athletes who don’t have that same level of god-given talent? I’m not specifically saying any top level athlete doesn’t work hard, but you see enough hard working lower level athletes to understand that there’s some things that can’t be made up for with hard work. Do these hard working athletes who never quite achieve the same level of performance have a right to try and make some money out of the sport they dearly love?
A very British Stance
I’m not sure if it is a British cultural thing, or if its actually just a human nature thing, but I’ve seen people (and I’ve even done it myself) look down on those people who embrace self-promotion. I think the British thing is the old stiff upper lip, work hard and you’ll be rewarded, and thats fine. But if you define being a professional athlete as making the most of your athletic talent AND making the most of your athlete profile, the working hard also includes the hard work you put into posting instagram pictures, getting your name out there, creating a profile and maximising any public exposure you can get.
Ultimately what does any company who puts money into an athlete want? Exposure! Does it really matter how good that athlete is, or are they literally seeing you as a walking billboard?
Theres some athletes who will maximise their pay by being good at this, I think the best example being Usain Bolt. Admittedly the guy is triple world record holder and wins any race he can bothered to stick around till the start of, but he has also maximised his exposure being the character he is. He’d still be the most recognisable athlete in the world if he didn’t give such a great interview afterwards, or do laps of the track in the batmobile before grand prixs, but I think he’d certainly lose a little something.
The dirty art of self-promotion
Culturally, theres something about us reserved British people that prevents us from revelling in self-promotion. This is definitely starting to change with the younger generation and their love of the “selfie”. The rise of social media has given every individual in the country the platform to elevate their every thought and action from something that once upon a time may have just been mumbled to a few friends to vehicle for creating a “fan base” of followers which can be used for their benefit. I think this whole thing is becoming a bit more socially acceptable.
If theres people out there who find worth or even just entertainment in what you say, think or do, then now you can put it there for their pleasure. This relationship then turns symbiotic when someone who isn’t necessarily world champion material can support their training because of smaller independent sponsorships formed on the basis of this following.
Selfish to self-less
Ultimately this could all be seen as a little bit selfish, but lets also have a look at the bigger picture, athletics isn’t marketed particularly well. World Champs and Olympics get some viewers, Diamond league meets are impossible to find on the red button and I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t even draw the comparison between our British League meets and the Premier league football matchs, which theoretically are a similar level. Could a bottom-up approach be a start? Create some promotion ourselves, get people interested in meets, keep them involved and interested in the sport during the long periods where we’re training and not competing.
Maybe or maybe not. My thoughts for what they’re worth. I look forward to your comments or feedback, be gentle.