Olympic gold medallist's stark warning: 'Athletes are going bankrupt' (2024)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must start compensating athletes fairly or risk an exodus of talent, believes Team GB’s Olympic swimming champion Matt Richards.

The emergence of a rival Olympic format – the Enhanced Games – has raised concerns over the number of athletes who could be tempted away from their respective sports for greater financial reward.

Billed as a “sporting event with a difference” and set to make its debut in 2025, the Enhanced Games would both pay athletes to compete and allow the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

Richards, who was just 18 when he won Olympic gold in the men’s 4x200m relay in Tokyo – Team GB’s first victory in the event since 1908 – fears a hefty pay cheque could be ­attractive bait.

“If you go to a World Championships and break a world record, World Aquatics will pay you $30,000 (£24,000). If you do the Enhanced Games – break a world record there, which is obviously easier because you’ve cheated – you get $1m.

“There’s going to be a lot of athletes who see that and think: ‘Hang on a second, I can do an easier thing and make significantly more money. Why would I not do that?’”

Having achieved his childhood dream of becoming Olympic champion at his maiden Games, the Worcester-born athlete fears others could have their hopes dashed if the IOC fails to intervene.

“World Aquatics and the IOC need to start giving money back to athletes or there’s going to be a lot who are driven out of Olympic sport for financial reasons,” Richards told i.

“I’ve seen first-hand athletes unable to keep going because financially it’s just not an option. You can’t keep pushing at a sport if you can’t afford to put food on the table.”

While the IOC generated more than £6bn in revenue during the last Olympic cycle, World Aquatics is still reeling from the pandemic years, having recorded a $16m deficit at the close of 2022.

“If you can create that kind of revenue – granted it’s not all profit – why is none of that getting fed back to the athletes?” added Richards, whose parents remortgaged their house to support his Olympic ambitions.

“You read about athletes going bankrupt or spending their life savings trying to reach the Olympics. There will be people out there who say: ‘If my governing body isn’t going to support me then I will go elsewhere, I’ll go to the people who will.’”

Retired Australian James Magnussen has already pledged to return to competition for the first time since 2019 in a bid to break the 50m freestyle world record – in exchange for $1m.

“I watched people like James Magnussen on the TV when I was 12 years old. To see people that I looked up to now following that path, it doesn’t sit right with me,” Richards said.

Olympic gold medallist's stark warning: 'Athletes are going bankrupt' (2)

As it stands, breaking a world ­record reaps a £70,000 reward, but the Olympic champion fears the visibility afforded to the Enhanced Games will impact a generation of up-and-coming talent.

“That kind of money is unheard of in swimming. There will be kids out there who see that James Magnussen has agreed to compete for $1m so think that’s the route to ­follow to make money. ­Essentially what you’re promoting is a dangerous sport for kids. It needs to be stopped.”

World Athletics recently prompted debate by announcing it will break with 128 years of tradition to become the first Olympic sport to pay gold medal winners $50,000 at the Paris Games this summer.

With a precedent now in place, other sports may have to look to ­follow suit for the 2028 Olympics in LA, but critics – including the IOC – have denounced the plans as “anti-Olympic spirit”.

Money and morals aside, the health implications for athletes who choose to take performance enhancing drugs is another cause for concern for the 21-year-old.

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“I think it’s wrong, it’s dangerous and it’s not something that we should be celebrating or talking about, let alone encouraging.

“Olympic sports are regulated by bodies like the World Anti-Doping Agency to test for drugs and anything that could be used to gain a competitive advantage, but the fundamental reason they do those tests is to keep people safe.

“This idea of saying, ‘Let’s throw away the rule book and see how fast humans can go’ is just dangerous. If you’re throwing that rule book away for a load of money then that’s all well and good, but who knows what that could do to your body in the future.”

Matt Richards is an ambassador for VOW Nutrition, official nutrition product and licensee for Team GB at Paris 2024 Olympics, vownutrition.com

Olympic gold medallist's stark warning: 'Athletes are going bankrupt' (2024)

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