Life as a Pro Track Athlete

So yeah, I have no idea what that’s like. But after catching Usain Bolt and the tail end of the World Track & Field Championships I made the conclusion that being a pro track athlete would be the most enjoyable sport to be a pro in. The whole training by yourself/without the camaraderie of a team certainly wouldn’t be all that fun, but there are plenty of other areas where track athletes prosper (except monetarily).

The first objection to the notion that track actually would be an awesome way to make a living is that, unlike the four major sports, being a millionaire is far from a certainty. While that may very well be true, there’s a lot lost in that argument. More of this stems from the fact that no one has any real understanding of what a track athlete actually makes. When I tell anyone what they do ($500,000 if you’re good) they scoff at it. “Track? Are you kidding me?! That’s way off.” Lest we forget they are pro athletes, especially in a field where the number of pros in your event may very well be in the single digits. From a pure numbers standpoint, it is far more competitive than any other pro sport, with a 3 athlete maximum per event per country (at least in the sprints). Compare that with roughly 1,500 NFL players on final rosters and you can see that much less money is divided between next to nobody.

Going along with the money, it might be nice of me to give a breakdown of how that money is accrued which is also a major selling point. In major sports, football players play 16 games, by far the least. Track athletes have anywhere from 8-10 meets a year, depending on the athlete and what their focus is (nursing an injury versus trying to get in as much high-level practice as possible). These numbers will also be drastically reduced in an Olympic year. A meet translates to a baseline of $25,000 up to $50,000. A bigger name like Bolt will attract a bigger payday than the guy in his first finals, and the end number includes a winning bonus. So if you’re winning a majority of your races and at least placing you’re doing pretty well for yourself. Then add in endorsements and the sky’s the limit.

Another obvious factor is that the only injury you’re really going to encounter is a pulled hamstring. It is nowhere near as physically demanding on the body as contact sports like hockey and football. Still strenuous and takes a great deal of talent, but lacks the long term wear and tear and day-to-day pounding of other pro sports. I wouldn’t get into career length, because these tend to be pretty short too, as there are only so many years you can effectively run alongside guys like Bolt (none, in most cases). Although one of those people is Justin Gatlin at the tender age of 33. Let’s also make it clear I’m not just talking about sprinters, but track & field athletes in general as money, career length, and injuries vary between them.

Maybe a less considered part of being a professional athlete is quality of life, albeit a different one than mentioned above. When people talk about which sport they would want to play professionally, many say baseball instead of football for the longevity and general livelihood after their career is over. A lack of blunt trauma is never a bad thing in one’s life.

Often overlooked, however, is the normality to your daily life and life outside of the playing field. Many want, or claim to want, the celebrity and instant gratification that comes with being a star in the NFL or NBA. Still many readily admit the constant attention would get to them quickly. In track, even after winning Olympic medals you can go largely anonymous. It is a sport where you get your 15 minutes of fame come Olympic time when literally the whole world is watching, make money off of a good performance and do the talk show circuit afterward, then slowly fade back into obscurity.

That may sound depressing, but it’s the closest I can imagine to the best of both worlds. You get attention when you want it (in your profession) and little fanfare outside of it. Post-Olympic stars have the summer of a lifetime and maybe a Subway ad out of it, but largely get to live life on their own terms. Ironically, I haven’t even used the hurdles or any hurdlers as examples because no one would know who they are. The gold medalist in the 110 hurdles, which is still one of the glory races in track, could go virtually anywhere, sports bars included; and be totally unrecognizable. Like everything else in life it’s all about attitude and perspective, but I’m taking the certainty of my health over the certainty of big money any day.

Exhibit A: Who is this man?

Recognize this man?

Can you name this person? No? Why it’s Aries Merritt. If it’s any consolation I thought the 2012 winner was Jason Richardson.

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