Gabby Thomas Hopes Paris Olympics Can Push Track to Lucrative Future

On a cool New York afternoon back in April, two-time Olympic medalist Gabby Thomas came to the Omega Boutique’s 100 Days Out event ahead of the Paris Olympics with understandable excitement. Although there’s always great anticipation for the grandest spectacle in all of sports, the buzz for even sponsor events has been different this time around. Paris will be a markedly different experience from the last time many people saw her and her Team USA peers in the national spotlight, during the COVID-delayed Tokyo Games in 2021.

Thomas, who starred on the track at Harvard before turning pro in 2018, won an individual Olympic bronze at 200 meters and silver as part of the 4×100 meter relay team in Tokyo. Since then the 27-year-old has continued her ascent as one of the top elite sprinters in women’s track and field, winning the national title in the 200 meters at the 2023 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championship, then following that up at the World Athletics Championships weeks later by taking silver in the 200 meters and gold in the 4x100m relay.

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But if you didn’t realize the success Thomas has experienced in the nearly three years since the Tokyo Games, you’re likely not alone. Like many Olympic sports, track and field struggles to garner attention outside of the Games.

Thomas’ recent comments criticizing the Wanda Diamond League’s upcoming streaming rights deal with FloSports—saying it would eliminate the visibility that track and field got on Peacock—turned heads in the track and field world, but they were a part of a larger conversation about what the sport’s power brokers can do to maintain the spotlight on track and field outside of the Olympic cycle. Thomas’ partnership with Alexis Ohanian for the soon-to-launch 776 Invitational, which was announced on April 23, could be a step in the right direction, although there are not many details about how the event will be seen and marketed.

The timing of both deals comes ahead of perhaps the most anticipated Summer Olympics in recent memory. Not only is the global extravaganza returning to its normal schedule of every four years, but there will also be in-person spectators for the first time since the Rio Games in 2016. It’ll be a far cry from the unusual scenes in Tokyo where athletes competed in front of empty stadium seats and were placed under strict protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19.

For many athletes around the globe in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic put a sudden and dramatic halt to their training and competitive routines as the Summer Games were postponed until 2021. That meant that the work Thomas and thousands of others had put over the last four years couldn’t be put on display right away. It also meant that the financial support that can be precarious in good times for the average Olympic athlete was even more threadbare.

“At that time, it was a little bit difficult,” Thomas told Sportico. “If you have sponsorship support, then you are okay. Not saying that you’re set for life, but you’re okay to compete in the sport. And if you don’t have that, it’s a struggle.

“Even just getting to trials, I didn’t realize it at the time, but it is so expensive. We have to take ourselves [to trials], and you have to take your team, so you’re paying for your coach—anyone you want to bring, you have to pay for, and it’s thousands of dollars, right? Trials are two weeks long. So, it’s really unsustainable unless you have a lot of outward support.”

One step toward better financial support for track and field athletes is that on April 10, World Athletics announced that it will pay athletes who win gold in any of the 48 Olympic track and field events. The global track and field organization is setting aside $2.4 million of its IOC revenue to pay $50,000 for individual gold and splitting the same award for relay gold.

“It’s a nice step forward to see that [World Athletics] is now paying Olympic champions,” said Thomas, who believes the award can encourage her to train for the Los Angeles Games in 2028. “I think it’s huge because a big misconception with Olympians is that they have the financial backing and they have resources. And that is just not the case. I trained at a local high school. We don’t have a great training facility; we don’t have access to all these things … Anything that they can do to help support athletes that are truly just training out of love about their sports is great.”

The Olympics are a blessing and a curse in terms of marketing sports and athletes who aren’t in the everyday limelight. The rush to be seen and heard in such a short window is intense, especially as many athletes hope that great showings at the Games will lead to sponsorships and other means of financial backing to further their competitive careers. Thomas lamented that it’s a challenge to perform to both win now and earn later.

“We have to juggle so much,” said Thomas, who also earned her graduate degree in epidemiology at the University of Texas. “And while we’re trying to make the team, we’re also juggling personal brands, and we’re also trying to grow the sport. I just have to really remind myself, every day, that I’m just a human outside of the sport.”

The FloSports deal with the Diamond League, which Thomas fears could dim the spotlight on her sport, isn’t the only contract that has been buzzed about in the track and field world. Noah Lyles, the world’s fastest man, recently extended an endorsement deal with Adidas for an undisclosed sum that is believed to be the richest deal for a track and field star since Usain Bolt’s pact with Puma that was reportedly worth $10 million a year.

When asked if a female star could earn a similar deal, Thomas believes it’s absolutely possible but that there is a reality for most of her peers, regardless of gender. “I think track and field is set up where if you are at the top of the game, you are definitely making that kind of money. But it’s a very sharp drop off from the top and then everyone else. So I love seeing [deals like Lyles’]. I think it’s good for the sport—it gets people excited about it and may encourage sponsors or people to invest in the sport.”

Both Thomas and Lyles will be featured heavily in NBC Sports’ coverage of the 2024 World Athletics Relays in the Bahamas May 4-5, which are qualifiers for the men’s and women’s 4x100m and 4x400m Olympic relays. And in less than three months, Paris awaits.

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