Considering the astronomical sums of money involved in top-level sport these days, it’s somewhat quaint to consider that so many of the world’s top athletes spend their lives striving for something that won’t earn them a penny. 

Not directly, anyway.

There are already many, many by-products of becoming Olympic champion.

To name but a few, there’s the fulfillment of, in most cases, a life-long dream; the rise in profile afforded by such an achievement and the satisfaction of proving yourself to be the very best on the planet on the one day that matters more than any other in the sporting world

But never has one of the by-products ever been remuneration. 

Which is why this week has been so significant with the introduction of Olympic prize money.

To date, the entire ethos of the Olympic Games has been based on amateurism meaning that not a penny has ever been directly awarded to athletes for medal-winning performances.

However, from this summer, this will change, with World Athletics announcing they will become the first federation to award prize money at the Olympics.

A prize pot of $2.4 million (£1.9 million) will be on offer at Paris 2024 this summer, meaning track and field athletes who win gold will walk away with a cool $50,000 in their pocket.

In Paris, it will be only the victors who will receive prize money however, the plan is to extend this to silver and bronze medallists in 2028.

The introduction of a financial reward at the Olympics is an interesting development, and comes at an interesting time.

The Olympics, since its inception nearly 130 years ago, has been billed as an amateur vocation, with professional athletes banned from even competing until relatively recently.

However, no one is daft enough to think Olympic sport is anything other than highly professional these days, with any pretence that it’s an amateur event left long in the past.

Olympic sport is now one of the most professionalised strands of elite sport and so the absence of financial reward due to its amateur roots has, for quite some time, looked distinctly incongruous.

So the move by World Athletics to introduce prize money, although somewhat out the blue, is entirely the right thing to do.

As World Athletics’ president, Seb Coe, rightly said in announcing this development, the athletes are the stars of the show and so they should be recognised as such. 

Of course, to any clear-eyed onlooker, it’s easy to see the importance of the athletes to the Olympic Games.

But for decades, in many quarters, they’ve not been treated as such.

Without them, the Olympics are nothing but it’s the athletes who are far down the queue when it comes to being rewarded or even acknowledged for the vital part they play.

The money the Olympic Games brings in is eye-watering; between 2017 and 2021, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made $7.6 billion in revenue from broadcasting rights, marketing rights as well as other avenues.

In short, many people are made rich by the Olympics but it’s not the athletes.

Sportsmen and women sacrifice so, so much to ensure they excel on the Olympic stage and while they are able to make money from individual sponsorship deals, it seems hard to justify the absence of a penny of prize money when it’s the athletes who are central to generating literally billions of dollars.

The suggestion that the introduction of prize money will somehow dilute or devalue the Olympics is fanciful.

Ensuring athletes are rewarded financially for making the Olympics what it is will not, as I heard suggested this week, “violate the Olympic spirit”. Prize money or not, an Olympic gold medal is, and will remain, the absolute pinnacle of almost every athletes’ career and a few dollars here and there will do nothing to diminish the prestige.

Instead, it’s just recognising, in some small way, the role the athletes have played in making the Olympics the juggernaut it is today.

The Herald: 2023 world 1500m champion, Josh Kerr, could be in line for gold medal prize money at Paris 20242023 world 1500m champion, Josh Kerr, could be in line for gold medal prize money at Paris 2024 (Image: Getty)

What’s perhaps more interesting than the decision of World Athletics to introduce prize money, which is almost universally accepted as a good idea, is why now?

For decades, athletes have dedicated their lives to their pursuit of a gold medal and the continuing absence of prize money for a few more years wouldn’t have done anything to dampen an athlete's desire to become Olympic champion. 

There has, however, in recent years become an increasing push from people who are trying to change the status quo of sport.

By that, I mean that the Olympic Games, outwith football, rugby and perhaps golf and tennis, has, to date, been the apex and everything else is distinctly subservient to the Olympics.

But the Saudi insertion into global sport, plus the Enhanced Games, which would allow athletes to compete aided by performance-enhancing drugs, are upsetting the accepted sporting hierarchy with their refusal to accept the way it’s always been.

The Olympics remains the pinnacle of sport but the more challenges there are to its supremacy, the more chance there is the best athletes could be tempted to go in a different direction.

The introduction of prize money then, is such a smart move by World Athletics; by adding this extra layer of financial reward to the already worshipped Olympic gold medal, they’re both giving their athletes a monetary reward that will be warmly welcomed by individuals who will often be far from millionaires and are highlighting their appreciation for the value athletes bring.

But for all the plaudits World Athletics has received this week, don’t expect every federation to rush to follow suit. 

Firstly, few have millions of dollars at their disposal.

And secondly, in all too many cases, athletes are still not recognised as the irreplaceable commodities they indisputably are.