Nick Symmonds is Leaving the Sport Better than He Found It

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S: So why should Joe the Plumber [laughs] care about track and field? Why should America invest in track and field athletes?

N: [long pause] I don’t know that they should for right now, to be honest. I’m a business owner and I have a marketing budget and I’m having trouble just finding why we should invest in track and field when USATF confiscates all — and USOC for that matter and IAAF — confiscate all the advertising space. I don’t want to work with them. I know how greedy and corrupt they are. I want to work directly with the athletes. But there’s almost no way for me to link my company and my brand with the athletes in competition right now. So it’s just like … I honestly, I don’t think USADA and WADA have done a good enough job cleaning up the sport, so I can’t go to Joe the Plumber and say, ‘You’re gonna watch a really cool event where people are clean and you’re going to see human beings push the limit of their natural capabilities.’ I don’t know that I could say that. And to Americans and corporations that want to invest in track and field, you can’t really justify the poor ROI [return on investment] you’re going to get for sponsoring an athlete. So I don’t know, I mean it’s a really tough decision because the sport needs money and needs support, but it’s a bad environment to invest right now.

S: That’s why I feel like we need to unravel what’s going on. We started doing that on our site, we have a post on what the USATF is and how it’s structured and who does what in it. I think we need to keep working on that and start making that case slowly. But beyond the financial interest, why — there’s something — we do care, right? 

N: We care once every four years, you know? [laughs] Except for the die-hards that watch track and field on the off years. The majority of the United States, and the majority of the world for that matter, care only once every four years.

Nick enjoys an occasional easy run with a professional photographer on a scenic bridge

S: Yeah. But there are millions and millions – unlike other sports like football – there aren’t millions and millions and millions of adults going out and playing football. But with running there are millions and millions and millions of adults who aren’t at the elite levels who aren’t professionals going out there and doing it. How can we harness those people to support the sport at the elite level?

N: Well it starts with people being able to tune into something that they believe is clean. A clean, well-governed sport. They need to be able to tune into something that’s exciting and fun to watch and I know 90% of people that are competing in any given track race, and I have a really hard time watching a track meet or, especially a televised track meet, because it’s packaged so poorly. You know people tune in to watch the Superbowl because it’s so damn entertaining. I don’t like football, but I love watching the Superbowl. I love the commercials, I love the fun atmosphere of sitting around with my friends on a Sunday and watching this, I even like the game because there’s a halftime show in this pretty cool place and it actually means something. When you tune into a track and field race, unless it’s the Olympic games it really doesn’t mean anything. You know? It’s not fun to watch, there’s a lot of dead time, you don’t know what’s going on, and for all you know you’re watching a Diamond League and you’re like, “What is the Diamond League? Where are they going? Are they bringing diamonds?” I’m in the damn sport and I don’t want to watch the Diamond League because I know it’s meaningless.

S: Have you ever thought about starting a professional league?

N: If I had ten million dollars, yeah! [laughs] It takes a ton of cash and again, who wants to invest in track and field right now when the governing bodies are making it almost impossible to operate and the USADA and WADA are doing an abysmal job of keeping it clean? I’d hate to start a track league only to watch USADA and WADA bumble their way around or stumble around trying to police the sport and just do a terrible job and for all I know I’ve got a bunch of dirty athletes out here stealing the money that we’ve worked so hard to procure for them.

S: It’s just so – wow. Just talking about it, it makes it so much more impressive that you keep fighting.

N: Well it’s not gonna happen in a day, this might be a generational thing. If I can sit down and watch a track meet in 60 years or at the age of 60 in 30 years and see athletes looking like NASCARs and know that they’re making good money and know that there’s a 99.9% chance they’re racing clean, I’d be really happy. And I don’t think it’s gonna happen much sooner than that. It’s not going to happen tomorrow. But you know we fought a hard battle in 2011 to allow athletes to be able to wear the logos that they choose in USATF competition and we won that battle. And now we’re fighting a similar battle when it comes to the Olympics and the Olympic Trials. We’re fighting that battle through the Run Gum lawsuit. So we’re gonna keep chipping away at it and it’s going to take probably decades before it’s at a point where I feel like our job’s done.

S: And then Rule 40, that was a huge huge deal with the Olympics. There was a lot of talk and criticism about it, but I’m curious — it’s all about the athletes, right? It’s about helping the athletes earn a living, right?

N: I mean, Rule 40 violates freedom of speech first of all, and if the IOC puts an Olympic Games on American soil you’re going to have some serious issues with that I think. I think that the Rule 40 is just so offensive on so many levels. You’ve got an athlete that’s spent four years sacrificing and training for this one moment and when they’re at the Superbowl of track and field or of whatever their sport is and they’re not even allowed to mention their sponsor by name, how are they supposed to make a living? Why would Run Gum sponsor an athlete for four years if, when they actually get attention, they can’t even mention my company? It just doesn’t make sense.

S: Right, and what’s really frustrating is that there’s no alternative. People say, ‘Well you’re working for it, it’s like you’re working for the Olympic company, so you have to follow their rules and wear their stuff.’

N: I’m not working for them, I’m not getting any of that money. If the IOC was to make every athlete an employee and was going to start cutting checks to the athletes then they could start making those demands. But they ask total loyalty but don’t compensate the athletes in any way.

S: Right. But I think that maybe something that I wonder if it undermines the argument is when companies complain about Rule 40. Because it’s … it can seem like, and I don’t believe this, but I think it might seem like they’re whining that they can’t compete with Nike.

N: Well let’s look at it this way: If I had made the Olympic team last year, Brooks Running was the one supporting me for the last three years. Or let’s take an actual example, Oiselle invested in Kate Grace for four years. They estimated that they invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to get Kate Grace on that Olympic team. And when Kate Grace finally makes it and represents our country and makes the finals, she can’t even mention them by name. Now the Olympic sponsors, McDonald’s, Nike, Visa, they did absolutely nothing, not a single dollar went to – let me be careful because I can’t speak to Kate Grace’s income – but as far as I know they did almost nothing to get her to that Olympic team. It was all Oiselle. Oiselle invested the hundreds of thousands of dollars to make her competitive with the world. And she can’t even mention them by name, so what’s Oiselle’s incentive to continue to invest in the athletes if they’ve gotten the athlete to the stage and there’s no ROI for them?

S: Sure. You could argue though that they shouldn’t have made that investment. I’m not saying that’s true, and I’m not saying that’s good, but from a business standpoint …

N: You said it not me.

S: Wait! Ha! I don’t believe that — I’m playing devil’s advocate!

N: How do we remain competitive on the world stage if congress isn’t putting any taxpayer dollars into our athletes, unlike every other country, and our corporations are realizing they can’t get an ROI, and governing bodies aren’t providing a living wage, well suddenly America no longer wins medals, because there’s no way for us to create these world class caliber athletes.

S: So I guess, I think it all comes back to the USATF and what their mission is, right? And are they furthering that mission? It seems like their mission now is raising money to do … what exactly?

N: Pay themselves.

S: Yeah, kinda. And “promote the sport?”

N: But they do a really poor job of that.

S: Right they don’t invest in the athletes, it seems like they’re trying to sell the sport itself, but not the– they’re not actually trying to develop or compensate the athletes.

N: I would argue that they’re trying to sell the sport, I mean if you go to the Occidental Invite in LA, a city with an urban area of over 10 million people, there’s no advertising for the meet, there’s no posters, you can’t even fill a 2000 person stadium in an urban area of over 10 million people. You know, that – well done! I mean, sarcastically, well done USATF that you could mess it up that bad.

S: Wow. Yeah. Okay! Well, last thing on the USATF nonsense, sorry! The Twitter dispute with Dwight Philips – what the hell was that about?

N: You’d have to ask him. I don’t think that Twitter’s the place to have disputes of much of any kind? I – Dwight has my phone number, he has Lauren Fleshman’s phone number, he could have called me if he had a grievance, he could have emailed me…

S: He never did?

N: No. You’d have to talk to Dwight about that.

S: There was racist element there. What was that about? Do you have any idea?

N: I don’t know.

S: It was strange. Yeah, it was sort of disturbing to see. I was just curious to know what that was about.

N: I agree.

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Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. I loved this interview and really appreciated a lot of the things he had to say, in fact he surprised me a few times. I really appreciate his thoughts on the doping situation (black and white when it comes to breaking the rules) but also acknowledging that grey area. As well as on genetics and when it comes to intersex/trans athletes. As someone who admittedly is VERY grey (I rarely see things in black and white, though I agree that if you break the law or rules…it’s pretty clear) its nice to read that I’m not alone in believing it isn’t always as simple as yes/no etc. Same thing with the PETA stuff, you can eat meat/hunt/fish and still believe in animals being treated properly etc.

    1. He’s a very talented guy all around – athlete, pitch-man, entrepreneur, advocate, conversationalist … I was impressed and I really enjoyed talking to him. I think the one thing that was most surprising to me is that he possesses humility. He is confident, opinionated, and assured, but knows his place in the world too. He is grateful for his gifts, his success, and aware of the power those things afford him and is committed to doing good work with that power. How can you not be a fan?

  2. Great interview. Nick does come across a little cocky and brash at times, so it was great to see something more long-form and get to hear his thoughts. I enjoyed this obviously thoughtful responses.

    I really appreciated his comments on the USATF — as a “sub-elite” (apparently, according to Spikenard’s article posted last week!), I ask myself somewhat regularly if I need to join USATF. But I struggle to see the benefit for me as an athlete, and I don’t think Siegel needs my money for jet fuel.

  3. Love this guy and what he has brought to the sport…and I’m not just talking about the gum 🙂 I had previously listened to the Run to the Top Podcast and this was a great change up from all the usual stuff you hear from Nick. Thank you!!