It Takes A Couple Of Corporations To Raise An Olympian

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The 21,000-member Atlanta Track Club and athleticwear maker Mizuno USA are having a go at Olympic development. The two organizations struck up a partnership, with one of their goals being:

Grow its existing competitive teams with the goal to have one male and one female qualify for the 2020 Olympics wearing Mizuno gear featuring the ATC brand. Kenah said the athletes would either be developed by the club, or would be recruited regionally to compete for the club and given the resources to train for the Olympics. He said they wouldn't pay someone to simply wear an ATC-branded product in Olympics, which will be held in Tokyo.

Well, of course, the Olympians won't be wearing ATC/Mizuno gear in the Olympics, no matter how much they are paid. I mean, when lounging in the athlete village and whatnot, but not...just a detail.

The ATC is not the only running organization to decide to build their own Olympian: Just last year, the Boston Athletic Association got into the Olympic development biz by forming the BAA High Performance Team. It's funded by their corporate partners, John Hancock and adidas, and by profits from the storied Boston Marathon, and the BAA's other races. Using a similar model, ATC will pay for their go for the gold via a combination of corporate sponsorship and race entries, including their marquee Peachtree 10K, that attracts 60,000 runners.


Back in the day, becoming an Olympic runner was largely a DIY affair. And plenty did. Led by the highly publicized exploits of Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, any decent college runner could score a part-time job and live on that meager income for six or seven years of 130 mile/weeks. Ready jobs and lack of crushing education debt were two key factors that enabled the running bum lifestyle.

The amateur days of distance running in the US, before you could earn money from road racing (Bill Rodgers may have received some under-the-table bones, but officially got four nice medals for his four wins of the NYC Marathon between 1976 and 1979), coincided with the US's greatest depth and quality in distance running. Ironically, as prize money increased, US performances plummeted.


It's not just that East Africans were lured to the purses: The number and quality of US distance running performances dropped. In 1983, 267 American men ran 2:20 or better in the marathon. In 2000, only 20 US men had run under 2:20. That same year, just one man and one woman qualified for the Olympic marathon team.

The US had been quite successful at distance running, and suddenly, we sucked. More people were running races, but they were joggers, not competitors. Somehow, the environment that had enabled significant numbers of minimally supported Olympic hopefuls had disappeared.


Like most problems in this country, it looked like money was the fix. Hand-wringing ensued, and shortly after that, training groups—Team USA Minnesota, Nike Oregon Project, Oregon Track Club, Hansons-Brooks, Mammoth Track Club, and others, focused on boosting a small group of promising runners toward World Championships and Olympic berths. Running USA and USATF both provided some start-up funds for some of the groups, with the understanding that they needed to develop their own sustainable revenue stream.

Building a mammoth base of recreational runners is a profitable model: More than 50,000 people were willing to pay upwards of $300 apiece to run through the five boroughs of New York. On the other hand, creating just one or two potential Olympians is pretty firmly on the expense side of the checkbook register. Sticking to a proven moneymaker— putting on races for the masses—the behemoth New York Road Runners indirectly supports Olympic hopefuls by providing grants from their race entry profits to existing training groups.


Other large race organizations—Twin Cities in Motion, the Houston Marathon, Pittsburgh Three Rivers, Gate River Run, among others—have similarly steered clear of the expense of running their own Olympic development program in favor of subsidizing existing programs.

The ATC/Mizuno endeavor, like other training groups, provides the long-term support needed to develop an Olympic-quality runner, something missing from infamously self-serving shoe sponsorships alone. Nike, Reebok, Asics, many major shoe companies opportunistically take on athletes in the months leading up to the Olympics, and shed them just as quickly afterward. Meb and Leo Manzano were some of the bigger names dropped as soon as Bob Costas' face disappeared from the TV screen. More long-term support seems a good thing for athletes.


Smaller players, like Mizuno and Team Oiselle, and to a degree, Skechers and Hoka One One, provide healthy diversity and competition in the very niche Olympic development industry.

While depth in US marathoning is nowhere near its 1983 level, it has rebounded somewhat: The 2012 Olympic marathon trials boasted 50 men under 2:20 (second-most ever) and the best times for women in places 1 through 15 since the event began in 1984. Of the three men and three women who made up the 2012 US Olympic marathon team, five were products of an elite training group/shoe company collaboration.


Apparently branded Olympians provide an attractive ROI, judging from the number of players throwing their hat in the rings.