Money and the Olympics joined hands a long time ago, with broadcasting rights for the event and sponsorships for competitors part and parcel of the quadrennial competition. What’s different with this week’s announcement is that rather than money being used to facilitate the event and support downstream development of the sports represented, its being used to reward those who earn a podium finish. In other words, it changes the purpose of competing from the adulation of the crowd, to the supplement of athlete income.

World Athletics’ CEO Sebastian Coe has announced that gold medal-winning athletes in each of the sport’s 48 events will walk away with US$50,000 in prize money at the Paris Olympic Games. World Athletics has also promised to extend the cash prizes to Olympic silver and bronze medal winners at the Los Angeles 2028 Games, to be from part of the broadcast revenues it gets from the International Olympic Committee every four years. Coe says, “it’s really important that where possible we create a sport that is financially viable for our competitors.”

In New Zealand, "cash for competition" was first seen in the sport of cycling in the late nineteenth century. The New Zealand Athletic Union was formed in December 1905, as an umbrella body for “cash sports societies” throughout the country, becoming the New Zealand Athletic, Cycling and Axemen’s Union in 1908,  operating for 60 years.

In that era, the Australasian Athletic Association forbade amateur clubs from putting cash or professional events on their programmes, with many other sports eschewing professional sportspeople, banning them outright from amateur participation if they chose to receive payment for playing. Coe says “my view is that the world has changed”, implying the taboos of the past need to be abandoned.

So what’s the problem with Coe’s announcement and what are the implications for amateur sports and sportspeople?

It’s simple.

Once a person receives or pays money for something, a contract and an actual or implied obligation is created reflecting the value of the financial exchange. This directly influences the motivation for the person paying or receiving the sum. A good example is a spectator who pays to attend a professional sport event. In exchange for the ticket price, the spectator expects a certain standard (and expects a certain outcome) to warrant the expense and opportunity cost.

If not realised, the payment quickly becomes “a waste of money”, irrespective of how the players approached the game and the result. The value of the contest in the mind of the ticket-holder is diminished and tarnished. Contrast this to the spectator at a community sports ground who cheers for the players and congratulates their effort regardless of the outcome, when all that is at stake is the pride associated with community participation.

Similarly, for an athlete offered US$50,000 for winning a gold medal, this (and other prize-monies for other medals) is likely to become an increasingly important part of their planning and motivation, inevitably underpinning their “financial viability” as professional athletes, influencing how they train, how they perform and how they perceive their competitors and the nature of the competitions they compete in.

Perhaps the last word on the matter can be left to A D Bayfield, once President of the Olympic and British Empire Games Association, who in 1939 said, "I believe that amateur sport is good for the individual and that it is also good for the .country in which he lives. It helps to make good citizens and I think that anything we can do to promote the sport in which we once participated and sport generally is something that is worth doing."