Symmonds-Stewart Controversy

The men’s 800 meters was part of this morning’s conclusion to the Aviva London Grand Prix. US champion Nick Symmonds wanted to be in that race, but wasn’t able to be. This was not because he wasn’t good enough–only three of the eleven entrants rank higher than Symmonds on the 2012 world list–but because the meet director didn’t want him.

Via Nick Symmonds’ twitter, posted yesterday:

London DL meeting begins tonight! I was gonna race the 800 but the meet director, Ian Stewart, called me “a liability” lol. ‪#TheIrritant‬

And from his Facebook page, also posted yesterday:

For those of you wondering why I am not racing in tomorrow’s London Diamond League 800m: I was told by the meet director, Ian Stewart, that I am “a liability” and that I am not allowed to race in any of his meetings. Apparently, he told the same thing to Lolo Jones, one of the most popular athletes in the world of Athletics. People like Mr. Stewart have very antiquated ideas about how the sport of Track and Field should be governed and are holding our sport back. Fortunately, most meet directors do not share his myopic opinions. Therefore, instead of racing at cold, rainy Crystal Palace (London), I will be racing on one of the fastest tracks in one of the most beautiful places in the world on July 20th. MONACO 800m!!!

What on earth could this all be about?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, last fall Symmonds created a Facebook page, I’m tired of USATF and IAAF crippling our sport. The crippling he speaks of is “ridiculously outdated regulations that our governing bodies have in place to control the way corporations are able to advertise in our sport”, which in turn severely limits the income of the athletes. He expounded on the topic at Flotrack. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic, by all means follow the links and read up.

This issue about sponsorship isn’t about gettting rich, it’s about being able to stay out of poverty–as CNN recently reported, “only 50% of American track and field athletes who are ranked in the top ten in the nation in their event earn more than $15,000 a year in income from the sport”.

Symmonds quickly found support. Within two days, his Facebook page on this issue gained 5,000 friends. The nascent Track and Field Athletes Association, an American athlete union of sorts, also benefitted from the base becoming fired up and membership soared.

In January, Symmonds auctioned off ad space on his shoulder (via temporary tattoo) and Hanson Dodge Creative, a Milwaukee-based advertising and design agency, won with an $11,000 bid. When IAAF and IOC regulations require–which is in nearly every race–he covers it up with a strip of athletic tape. That practice probably calls even more attention to it than if it simply were left uncovered.

It appears that Symmonds is not welcome at any meet organized by Ian Stewart because of his guerrilla marketing tactics. Lolo Jones has done some of the same (albeit with less publicity), such as wearing a headband bearing the logo of her secondary sponsor Red Bull, and is similarly barred from any of Stewart’s meets. Former American Record holder Chris Solinsky has indicated that Jerry Schumacher’s entire Portland-based group of distance runners is also barred from the meet, although the reasons for that are unknown.

Should we be shocked by this? Hardly, and because this was telegraphed to us way back in December at the USATF annual convention.

At that convention, a meeting was organized by the Athlete’s Advisory Council, which is supposed to be the liason between the athletes and USATF leadership, to discuss the whole issue of uniforms, sponsorships and so forth. The leaders among the athletes were Symmonds, Lauren Fleshman and Adam Nelson, but there were many athletes in attendance. From Running Times:

It wasn’t quite the NBA lockout, but athletes asserted their rights like never before at the USATF annual meeting held Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in St. Louis. The assembly, which brings together officials in all facets of the sport from around the country, is usually a fairly staid, quiet affair, with rule changes discussed in small, lengthy meetings of small committees. But this year’s meeting of the Athletes Advisory Council was anything but small and certainly not staid.

Much of the ire of these groups was directed at rules that limited the number and size of logos on an athlete’s uniform, or body parts, which gained huge publicity last month when Lauren Fleshman was forced to scrub off temporary tattoos of her PickyBars company logo just before the start of the ING New York City Marathon. The conflict was exacerbated when participants in the Dec. 10 USATF club cross country championships in Seattle were told they would have to adhere to the logo restrictions as well. This was all supposed to be addressed at the AAC meeting Friday, but no one expected the fireworks that erupted there.

I wasn’t there, but I’ve communicated with several people who were.

Whereas athletes had been told they’d be able to ask questions, make comments and have a conversation, the first hour of the meeting consisted of various muckety-mucks lecturing the athletes about the rules and that they’ll just have to make do with how things are. USATF president Stephanie Hightower “scolded us angrily” and when Nick calmly but firmly spoke up for the athletes, she “just yelled louder and wagged her finger more”.

Among those muckety-mucks who talked down to the assembled athletes was, you guessed it, Ian Stewart. Quotes attributed to him at that meeting include “you say you’re professionals; act like it” and “if you think you’re gonna walk into one of our track meets wearing Axer across your chest, it’s not gonna happen”. The gist of his remarks were summed up as “if you don’t play by my rules, you’re not getting into my meets”. He controls all of the meets in the UK’s Aviva series, which includes the upcoming Birmingham stop on the Diamond League tour.

Stewart, of course, is British, and only organizes British meets. Why in the world was he at the USATF convention? Because his wife is none other than USATF president Stephanie Hightower.

So is Stewart within his rights to not invite athletes? Absolutely. These meets are invitationals, after all. There are always politics involved in who gets in–agent connections, money, sponsorship agreements, and so forth. But this is a pretty naked attempt to push around several athletes. And does make us wonder a bit about the legitimacy of the Diamond League points races; the IAAF has farmed out its top tour to meet promoters and ceded most of the control. This kind of stuff is the natural result.

Stewart, for his part, may have stepped on the wrong person’s toes and not even realized it. The first “muckety-muck” to speak at that AAC meeting in December was Bob Hersh. He quietly but firmly explained two things. First, that USATF is under no obligation whatsoever to enforce IAAF (international) rules at USATF (national) meets. Second, that the IAAF has slightly loosened uniform rules for 2012 to allow space for a second sponsor logo. He clearly appeared to be on the athletes’ side in this dispute.

And just a few months prior to that USATF convention, Hersh was elected first vice president of the IAAF, making him the #2 most powerful person in track and field. “Vindictive” is not a word that has ever been associated with Hersh, but let’s say that it’s better to have the IAAF’s first VP agreeing with you than disagreeing with you.

A side note: Symmonds has been called the modern incarnation of Steve Prefontaine. Like Pre did, he’s a forceful personality who lives and trains in the Eugene area and has led a fight for athletes’ rights against self-serving administrators. When Prefontaine let up at the end of the 1972 Olympic 5000 meters and fell from third to fourth, who ended up winning that bronze medal? None other than Ian Stewart. Coincidence to be sure, but a remarkable one.

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21 Responses to Symmonds-Stewart Controversy

  1. runbei says:

    Same shenanigans were happening long, long ago. Same diagnosis and etiology. Older, fatter, out-of-shape has-been T&F stars lording it over the young, and all for ego, ego, ego, ego, ego.

    I work part-time for a brilliant 80-year-old industrial psychologist named Don Greene. He uses a number of uncannily accurate tests that ferret out qualities in executive leaders that pose a threat to organizational efficiency and harmony. The first thing USATF should do when evaluating new manager-candidates is hire Don. Oh, and assign the BOD to read, once every six months, a book called The No-Asshole Rule, by Robert I. Sutton, Stanford Professor of Management Science and Engineering.

    Fortunately there are people who serve the sport and care about the athletes. They just need a leg up to drive to SOB’s out of T&F.

  2. Jake says:

    It’s almost comical that a meet promoter thinks he’s protecting the sanctity of the sport by holding out high-profile athletes who will push the pace and improve the athletes’ results. Without fast time and big personalities, track will continue to be a fringe sport.

    This “protection” thought process is almost as archaic as the driver behind it-the idea that athletes shouldn’t be able to demonstrate endorsements on their skin or uniforms. Ultimately, track will grow when athletes are supported (by the market) and have the means and resources to chase great times and great marks. People watch sports to see the best of human ability and it’s only a matter of time before jack knobs like Ian Stewart are pushed out of the sport because they’re holding back athletes’ ability to secure those means.

  3. Fawn Dorr says:

    i have 3 sponsors, why can i ONLY wear 1? i want my uniform to be like nascar! this stuff is insane. i full support nick… its time for a change.

  4. Davey says:

    Stewart and Hightower’s actions are only working to delegitimatize their respective organizations through these highly subjective and antiquated attempts to hold the sport back. The UK–host of this summer’s Olympic games–should be utterly ashamed at the self-aggrandizing, petty and contemptuous display these two have performed in front of an international audience.

  5. Doug Hanna says:

    I have to agree with the sentiments of the athletes, however, when a person chooses to make a living out the sport then those who run the meetings have some control. Having said that, how could the ‘fat cat’ professionals run the sport without the cooperation of athletes and unpaid officials; they need to say NO more often.
    It is time for those who are in the sport for for enjoyment as opposed to those who do it to earn a living stand up and refuse to be governed by the sports promoters who bow down to the wishes of sponsors and television. Athletes are often left to find their own sponsors and their logos have a right to be seen. The sport shown on TV is not the sport that I am interested in nor involved in, and, to be quite frank, its presentation is boring and does little to attract people into it. Who in their right mind would want to wear a number or name tag large enough to make a vest from! For whose benefit is it – certainly not the athletes.
    Save the sport by denying the fat cats such a lucrative living, their are fewer of them than their are athletes and meeting organisers. The sport belongs to the athletes NOT the promoters and not television.

  6. Coach Larry says:

    Track meets should be run for the benefit athletes and spectators, not for the administrators and bureaucrats. Let’s remember that the IAAF, created in 1912 originally had the word “amateur” in its name, which was replaced by “association” in 1982 when the practice of “under-the-table” payments to athletes during the 1970 was legitimized and allowed professionalism in the sport. Finally athletes could receive payments for appearances, and could also obtain sponsorships.

    Idiots like Stewart would probably like to see the sport revert back to days of amateurism but with more athletes like Symmonds willing to be vocal and with more support from the track & field community, the sport we love will grow to accept that track & field (and all LDR) athletes need more financial support. This is the only way the sport will grow to hopefully recapture the prominence it once held.

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  8. Tracker says:

    How long can Stephanie Hightower be such an embarrassment for track & field fans in this country? She has been a high-profile failure at nearly everything she has done. Despite that, she presents herself as a winner. Sad. She needs to learn that this is not about her (or her weasly husband). IAAF should pull the DL meets from GBR and give one to JAM.

    • Concerned Fan says:

      I agree with all the comments above. USAFT need to add another “A” for “Amateur” to its name to be in step with the IAAF. Hightower and entire USATF need to steps aside otherwise T&F will continue is slow death. If not for the Olympics it will be dead already. Except for Track diehard fans like us and the current athletes nobody cares due to thier incompetence. Why would a company sponsor an athlete or event if their logos and names can’t be displayed?. In addition to the egos and sponsorship issues, other terrible examples are (1) the way the Women’s 100M Dead Heat situation was handled (2) another one was the USATF CEO Superman qualifications criteria which past or current Presidential candidates or any Fortune 500 CEO would have qualified for.

  9. Red says:

    Revert to a really archaic practice. For one Olympiad at least, advertising will be a moot point.

    Let ‘em compete naked.

  10. Robert Paul says:

    Steve Prefontaine “let up” at the end of the Munich 5k? Go to youtube and watch some (not-too-high-quality) videos. Prefontaine made that race; he kept it honest and gutted it out till the end. Ian Stewart as said that he almost felt ashamed for sneaking past Pre at the finish, after Pre had done the work.

    Take a look at Kenny Moore’s The Men of Oregon, for the best account of that race, Pre’s reaction to it, and the horror of the attack by the Palestinian terrorists. After the kidnapping and the murders, many of the track and field athletes thought the Olympics should not continue, and that they should go home. Pre’s reaction to this should be required reading.

  11. Muscleman says:

    Well if he wants to ban the athletes…the athletes should ban him. He needs the athletes far more than the athletes need him. What the athletes lose will be temporary…Stewart will lose far more. His reputation, fans, sponsors, and not to mention money. The meet promoters think they are calling shots. When in fact they are just filling lanes. To call Symmonds or Lolo “liabilities” shows his lack of vision and global perspective on a sport that he earns his living in. There are already many empty seats at his meets. He own crassness and stupidity will eventually be his own demise.

  12. AnthonyJ says:

    There are other areas in this country were track meets can be held ( not just Oregon, Des Moines, and New York). They say it’s a dying sport but I’ve been to mulitple USATF and AAU meets in the summer along with National Meets and it’s anything But a dying sport. If they have the meets people will come. I’m with Symmonds 100% on this but I think the people in this country would support meets that include the stars. PS. Fire Hightower

  13. Sheldon says:

    I think Ian Stewart is taking out his frustration of being given bronze by Prefontaine instead of have the chance of earning it. Which is probably why he hates people like symmonds so much.

  14. Dan Tritter` says:

    my first bigtime meet was the baa indoor in 1946. a tux-clad fellow with shaky hands held the 60-dash gun, and false starts followed false starts,
    and the great barney ewell was dq’d. in response, all the finalists walked off the track. my first but certainly not the last of scores of administrative idiocies by track officals. hightower and stewart epitomize the smallminded petty egotisms of officaldom. get rid of them and all like them, and the sport will grow and prosper. and here we thought that avery brundage and dan ferris, the mossbacks of the past, were dead. no, their successors are still in charge, and it’s time to bury them as well.

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  16. Mark says:

    Oh, and by the way, this Ian Stewart is the same jackass who denied Anthony Whiteman entry into the mile event, denying an on-form Whiteman a good chance at breaking the Master’s world record.

    Let’s see, British athlete, in a good position to break a long-standing world record, in London in an Olympic year, with every prospect of being competitive in the field. (I see Manzano ran 4 minutes plus) Nope, can’t have that.

    You’re a real marketing genius there, Ian.

  17. j shea says:

    I suggest complaining to the race sponsors. I sent an email to Aviva asking for an end to such discrimination. It might be a faster route to the same end.


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  20. Interested Observer says:

    This situation is so laughable.

    We have professional golf (the very prim and proper country club based professional sport) in which the participants wear more sponsorships logos on just about everything except their underwear than any competitive activity except perhaps NASCAR. Admittedly they play for much higher purses than track and field athletes.
    But this is track and field, a down and dirty, sweaty competitive arena with sharp spikes, sand pits, bars, etc. Let the T&F athletes earn as much as they can in their short competitive careers. Maybe the arenas in which the T&F events are held should be limited as to the number of advertisments that can be displayed as well. Go get ‘em Nick.