Why an Olympic medal is the most treasured despite lack of prize money at the Games

Tokyo 2020 Olympics 1,500m gold medallist Faith Kipyegon (C), Laura Muir (L), who won silver, and Sifan Hassan during the medal ceremony. Photo: Imago

Why an Olympic medal is the most treasured despite lack of prize money at the Games

Joel Omotto 05:05 - 12.04.2024

World Athletics will start rewarding Olympic medallists from the Paris 2024 edition but why have the Games remained hugely popular among athletes even without cash incentives?

World Athletics’ decision to reward track and field stars who win gold at the Paris 2024 Olympics has revived debate on why the International Olympics Committee does not reward medallists at the Games.

The Olympics, one of the oldest major competitions whose first edition took place in 1896 in Athens, Greece, is seen as the pinnacle of sports but despite its prestige, winners go home empty-handed and it is up to the respective countries to decided whether they will reward their medallists.

However, World Athletics appear keen on changing the narrative after setting aside $2.4 million (Ksh312 million) to pay the gold medallists across the 48 events on the track and field programme for this year's Paris Olympics.

Each gold medalist in track and field will be rewarded $50,000 (Ksh6.5 million) while relay teams will split the same amount between their members in what is a landmark decision for the sport.

The athletics governing body also announced that the cash rewards will be extended to silver and bronze medallists from the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.

With that decision, World Athletics has broken away from the age-old tradition which will certainly be an extra motivation for track and field stars, but even without any rewards, athletes in all disciplines still jostled to ensure they qualified for the Olympics.

So, why does the Olympics remain so popular even without any financial incentive?

The major thing that is making the Olympics popular is the prestige that comes with featuring at the Games and it becomes more lucrative if one wins a medal.

For those in track and field, winning an Olympics medal takes your career to another level with a medal gold being a major life-changing achievement.

Italian Marcell Jacobs recently admitted how his surprise 100m gold at the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics propelled him into the global spotlight while seeing him receive invitations to a number of events and it also came with the pressure of maintaining the high level which his body and mind could not handle.

Being an Olympic champion makes you an instant hit and one of the most sought-after runners from organisers of major events.

This is because it is easier to sell the race when you have Olympic winners, since the interest from fans, sponsors and broadcasters will be great.

For the athlete, the appearance fees go higher when you are an Olympic champion or medallist. It means for four years, they can keep bargaining a higher appearance fee and sponsorship which will boost their coffers whether they win or not.

There is also the interest from various brands who offer top dollar in endorsement deals just to be associated with an Olympics champion.

In Kenya, marathon legend Eliud Kipchoge and 1,500m world record holder Faith Kipyegon have earned big bucks in recent years by virtue of winning back-to-back Olympics golds, getting invited to prestigious races and negotiating higher appearance fees.

It was the same case with two-time Olympic champion David Rudisha who broke his 800m world record at the 2012 London Olympics or Jamaican legend Usain Bolt.

Rudisha and Bolt were huge draws at various events and would command high fees. Even now, when they are not active, they are still feeding off their Olympics heroics.

Kipchoge has also backed it up with impressive performances, breaking world records and pushing to the limits never witnessed before, which makes him a hot cake for race organisers.

He has been confirmed for the 2024 Paris Olympics after making Kenya’s final marathon team, which could see him become first marathoner to win three straight Olympics gold medals, and even with his illustrious career starting to wind down, Kipchoge could still feed off his Olympics medals for years if he manages a hat-trick of titles.

It is the main reason top marathoners snub the World Championships but jostle for Olympics tickets because they can earn from Olympics success for longer compared to the Worlds which happen every two years, meaning less time to bargain, unless you defend your title.

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