Pay up and play for gain

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The Independent Online
IN RECENT times, no issue in sport has been more frequently claimed as an absolute truth than the performer's right to a substantial share of the profits.

It is triumphantly evident in obscene prize-money, salaries out of all proportion to ability, purses that would alleviate suffering in Somalia, and the sort of bargaining procedures for which Dick Turpin was famous.

To the majority of sports watchers, even wrestling with the problems of recession may seem a good deal easier than scoring a goal in the Premier League or hooking Curtly Ambrose at his most rampant to the boundary, but, to put it bluntly, there is a danger in the present lull of ignoring the evidence in front of our eyes.

For example, a day seldom passes when you fail to come across an item about sport in print or on radio and television that can only be fully understood by referring to a calculator, and may even persuade some highly sensitive souls to reach for a sick bag.

At this point, and recalling the old Football League's iniquitous maximum wage, it is necessary to make clear that I am very much in favour of labour getting a fair share in the fruits of labour. It is equally clear in my mind that experts at sport should be considered like any other star entertainer and be paid accordingly.

This brings us to an issue, not entirely original I might add, that has arisen in athletics as a direct result of the world track and field championships becoming a biennial event.

Taking due account of the huge profits that will thus accrue, a large number of prominent runners, jumpers and missile hurlers are threatening to boycott this year's proceedings in Stuttgart unless the International Amateur Athletic Federation (a pathetically anachronistic definition) agrees to pay prize-money.

According to reports of the most reliable nature, the IAAF, which is said to be pulling in around pounds 35m a year, has suggested a compromise payment of up to pounds 100,000 for athletics federations out of which bonuses can be awarded to medal winners. Needless to say, this has been ridiculed by agents who are usually at the source of such matters.

With an ear to the ground during the Olympics in Barcelona last summer, I had breakfast one morning with a television executive and the representative of an internationally famous athlete who was among the favourites to win a gold medal. 'I'm not thinking about now,' the agent said. 'I'm thinking about next year.' With a scathing reference to the IAAF president, Primo Nebiolo, he added: 'The big money will be in Stuttgart.

'No doubt Nebiolo will come up with a suggestion to suit the IAAF, but, along with a lot of other people I believe the door was left wide open for athletes when it was announced that the world championships will come round every two years. Unless the IAAF agrees to our demands we shall be advising our people not to show up.'

Well, it doesn't take a great brain to figure out what such vehemence could lead to, especially as a minimum of dollars 8m ( pounds 5.3m) is the figure agents for the US athletes have in mind.

Unquestionaby, the athletes have a case and not much sympathy can be held out for the IAAF. But the more that labour conditions in sport are debated, perhaps the more clearly does the reader appreciate the dangers of making wholesale concessions to the performers. The truth is that they are frequently paid too much, and in many instances aren't worth what they have been getting.

This week, quite by chance, I spoke with the coach of a leading Premier League club who let it slip that he has failed in persuading his players that some of their spare time would be best spent on improving basic skills.

'They have good contracts, a certain amount of fame, and because of the way things are it isn't all that difficult to find another club,' he said. 'Suggest that they try to improve themselves and all you get is a blank stare.'

Sadly, the impulse to take up a game is very often now the impulse to make a mountain of money and, so far, in the eagerness to make it there does not appear to be much gratitude for the gift.

Sports performers today are encouraged to see themselves as rock stars entitled to adoration, the pamperings of luxury, and no serious questions asked about behaviour on or off the playing field. I suppose television has had a lot to do with it.

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