In March of 2020, Georgia-born, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Christian Taylor, logged onto SurveyMonkey and drafted a questionnaire to send to track and field athletes around the world. He wanted to know how other athletes were coping with COVID-19 rapidly closing tracks, gyms, and other training facilities–not to mention the psychological toll that an uncertain sporting future was taking on athletes.
After crafting the survey, he tapped into the networks of bilingual athletes he met while training and competing over the past several years. Within a day, the survey was translated into 11 languages and disseminated on social media, over email, and by text. Taylor then went to sleep.
Shortly after he woke up, the number of participants reached 4,500. Ninety percent stated that they had been adversely impacted by the pandemic. Many were finding it difficult, if not impossible, to train for the upcoming Olympic Games, but few had heard any news from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or World Athletics (WA), the international governing body of track and field.
The IOC and WA asked for the results of the survey, seemingly shocked that their essential labor force was reporting compromised working conditions, despite the fact that neither organization had reached out to see how athletes were doing.
The impact was profound, and shortly after the Olympics were postponed. But the circumstances mirrored a familiar dynamic—one in which sports institutions failed to consult athletes about management decisions.
Athletes are used to getting news by word-of-mouth. But what made this instance different was the already-laid infrastructure to help disseminate the information. Though it was not yet officially launched at the time, the Athletics Association is an independent organization designed to listen to the needs of track and field athletes around the world and help them collectively bargain.
The South: Track and Field
The AA's inaugural president, Taylor, grew up in Fayetteville, Georgia. "Football is king" in the South, as he put it. "You're either a football star, or maybe a track star because you weren't good enough but you were really fast. But it's just the culture. It's sprint nation."
It took Taylor a short while to find his niche in sport, via "process of elimination," he said, as he eventually realized he was uniquely talented in longer sprints and the triple jump. But it was not until winning the world youth championships at 16 that he thought he could make a career from hopping, skipping, and jumping.
Most of the top sprinting and jumping NCAA programs in track and field are in the South.
After a brief flirtation with LSU, he decided to go to the University of Florida—a sprinting and jumping powerhouse. There, Taylor continued to thrive. He won numerous titles and established himself as one of the top competitors in the world. As he began outcompeting sponsored athletes, he opted to turn professional in exchange for a university diploma.
"It was my junior year and I was ranked number one in the world. And I went to my adviser and asked, 'If I was number one in the world right now how much would I make?' His number was smaller than the contract that I was offered I was like 'OK, well I have to seize this moment.'"
And he definitely did. Like all other NCAA athletes, track and field athletes cannot collect prize money or profit off their likeness while they are considered a student-athlete. Critics of NCAA amateurism have pointed out the racialized exploitative relationship this has normalized between Black athletes in revenue sports (Basketball and Football) and the university (administrators and coaches) and the NCAA system.
Arizona State University professor, Victoria Jackson, for example, has specifically noted that the rules of amateurism create a matrix in which mostly white student athletes become beneficiaries of college athletics, while athletes in revenue sports—who are mostly Black—get none of the profit they produce for the schools and the NCAA. Jackson, who implicates herself in this labyrinth as a beneficiary, was an NCAA champion in the 10,000 meters, and surrounded by mostly white athletes who compete in distance events.
However, track and field, and specifically the sprints and field events, have the highest number of African American competitors in collegiate sport. In 2019, 3,013 Black men and 3,541 Black women competed in the sport. (3,094 in men's basketball for comparison). Although they are not considered revenue-producing athletes, Black track and field athletes are also privy to a particular kind of consciousness raising that comes from seeing one's work so closely monitored and unremunerated.
Taylor, like other recent track athletes who have turned professional before graduating, no longer wanted to be one of the countless NCAA track stars representing the U.S., and winning at global championships without earning a paycheck. Put simply, "The next practice isn't guaranteed let alone the next season," he said.
After winning the World Championships in 2011, Taylor knew he made the right choice to turn professional. The following year, the decision was only further reaffirmed, as he went to win gold at the London Olympics.
As far as performance accolades, between his numerous global championship medals and infamous leg switch after a physical injury to his takeoff leg, Taylor secured a lasting legacy in the sport after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio where he became the first triple jumper to twin two Olympic Medals hopping off different feet But what he may become even better known for in decades to come, is for his central role in organizing international track and field athletes.
In 2019, Taylor's main event, the triple jump, was one of four cut from the Diamond League, which is track and field's most prestigious competition circuit outside of the Olympic Games. Athletes specializing in his even—along with the 200 meters, 3,000 meter steeplechase, and the discus—had nowhere to turn to voice grievances. Taylor, with the help of other athletes, began to create this space.
See also: In spite of victory on the field, NCAA football players continue to fight off the field to receive their due
In December, 2019, Taylor flew to Reno, Nevada, to make a presentation at USA Track & Field Federation conference about the impact of these cuts. World Champion steeplechaser, Emma Coburn, approached him afterward to express gratitude, and he asked her to help him voice his concerns. Other athletes reached out over social media and online, wanted to get involved as well.
"Too many athletes were reaching out and I didn't know where to put them," Taylor remembers. Initially, he did not anticipate leading the charge behind an organization. He was just frustrated and looking to change the state of things. "I did not see this as a calling. I saw this as making a call to action to my colleagues. But I didn't see myself as being a president of anything."
Nebulous at first, he reached out to a good friend based in the U.K. to think about how to structure the emerging organization. His friend, Jeff Freeman, gave him a crash-course on trade unions and their structure. "He told me every employer pays some fees for membership benefits. And I thought well that's really cool in track and field but we don't really have employers."
Unlike other professional sports leagues, the track and field athletes are not employed by the leagues or governing bodies in which they participate. They sign contracts with shoe and apparel companies to get equipment, enter into a bonus structure, and if they are very lucky, earn a steady income. Despite the fact that national and international governing bodies regulate many of the decisions, the hybrid structure of the athletics economy makes it difficult to bargain.
But because WA is the biggest umbrella organization, the AA's initial efforts are directed at getting a seat at their table. "All the nations that compete at the World Championships are under WA," Taylor explained. "This is why we believe if we can get a seat there we can have a seat everywhere."
The first item the AA came out to change is the IOC's barbaric Rule 50, which prohibits political dissent. Many athletes, and Black athletes in particular, acutely felt this given the current political climate. Those that have breached the rule noted the hypocrisy in the ways that sponsors and governing bodies celebrate the past gestures of John Carlos and Tommie Smith while punishing current athletes for acting in the same faith.
"It's looked at as heroic and symbolic, but nothing has changed," Taylor said of the anniversary's celebration of the 1968 salute. "So if Rule 50 had been abolished, then we could say it was worth it. But we're talking about it as if it was 50 years ago. Because if you protest today you can lose your medal, or be fined." This is a human rights issue, among other labor issues, that the AA hopes to collectively politicize.
As they grow their membership and scope, the AA has a lot of potential to shift the direction in track and field, joining many other professional athletes across different arenas. This shift will, primarily, follow a model unfortunately all too absent in high performance athletics. It will actually include athletes in the conversation.