As a long-time observer of the sport. I see that much has changed little since I became involved in the sport some 50 years ago. As an athlete, I was fortunate to have fine coaches, as a coach, I dealt with some of the byzantine rules of the NCAA, and as a journalist, I have seen federation presidents come and go, bring money into the sport, but without change and innovation, the sport still has way too many fingers stuck in the 19th century. Other sports have changed and evolved. Our sport fights change kicking and screaming, in many cases.

Deji Ogeyingo wrote this piece last week on the possibility of Saudi Arabia investing in our sport. We need money to bring true innovation, but we need to be open to change. Are we ready? 


Unlocking Athletics: The Potential Impact of Saudi Arabia’s Investment in Track and Field

Saudi Arabia has strategically positioned itself as a powerhouse, channeling significant funds into sports such as golf, football, and boxing. As the nation eyes the prospect of hosting the FIFA World Cup, there is growing speculation about the potential benefits of Saudi Arabia’s foray into athletics. Could athletics, often overshadowed by other sports outside the Olympics experience a transformative boost if Saudi Arabia directs its financial prowess toward the track and field arena?

If you have been living under a rock, you will know that the Saudis have a long-term ambition to penetrate sports in various ways. Primarily, it is through money, and however you want to spin it, the concept of what sport does to society has seen a big push towards athletes and sports organizations making more money, thereby increasing its popularity.

The trajectory of Saudi investments in golf and football provides a valuable lens through which to anticipate the impact on athletics. The controversial nature of these investments, particularly the acquisition of Newcastle United and the establishment of the LIV Golf tour, has sparked debates on morality, human rights, and the intertwining of sports and politics. Yet, as the narrative shifts, the questions naturally turn to athletics—could Saudi Arabia reshape the landscape of track and field?

Noah Lyles, photo by Brian Eder for RunBlogRun

At the heart of this discussion is the recognition that financial injections can catalyze substantial changes. In the golfing world, Saudi investments led to the creation of the LIV Golf tour, attracting top players despite initial reservations. The lure of substantial financial incentives prompted golfers to align with Saudi-backed initiatives, offering an alternative to traditional golf circuits. If a similar formula were applied to athletics, Saudi Arabia could potentially draw renowned athletes, injecting newfound energy and competitiveness into track and field events.

Imagine, Usain Bolt, at his peak, was incentivized to compete at a track meet in Saudi Arabia. Surly, this would have added more money to his wallet in the form of endorsements and appearance fees. Now, the likes of Noah Lyles or even Sha’Carri Richardson can’t afford to match up financially with an average football or basketball star despite being the big names in athletics.

For the fans of Fantasy athletics- one that pitches two or more superstars in unique events, say Athing Mu/Mary Moora/Femke Bol squaring up in the 600m or even Lyles taking on Fred Kerley over 150m, this would be a dream come true. Because let’s face it, some of the stumbling blocks to these sorts of events happening has always been the lack of finance from major sponsors. That’s where the Saudis come in.

The impact of Saudi Arabia’s sports investments extends beyond competition. The influx of funds has the potential to revolutionize training facilities, coaching programs, and grassroots initiatives in athletics. Historically, nations that prioritize sports investments witness an overall improvement in the caliber of athletes produced. Saudi Arabia, by dedicating resources to the development of athletics infrastructure, could foster a new generation of track and field stars.

ShaCarri Richardson, 2023 Nike Pre Classic, photo by Brian K. Eder/RunBlogRun

However, the ethical considerations surrounding Saudi investments cannot be overlooked. The scrutiny faced by golfers and football players alike raises questions about the moral implications of associating with a regime criticized for human rights violations. Athletics, with its global appeal, could become a stage for athletes to express their stances on ethical issues, potentially adding a layer of social responsibility to the sport.

As Saudi Arabia navigates its sports portfolio, the tennis and snooker ambassadorships accepted by Rafael Nadal and the hosting of the Riyadh Season World Masters of Snooker exemplify the country’s diverse approach to sports. Athletics, with its universality and Olympic spirit, could become a beacon for Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a well-rounded sports portfolio. By investing in track and field, the nation may not only elevate its global sports standing but also contribute to the broader narrative of inclusivity and diversity in athletics.

Medals, World Athletics Championships
Budapest, Hungary
August 19-27, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

The debate surrounding the ethics of such investments remains crucial. While the human rights situation cannot be ignored, the transformative potential of Saudi investments in athletics introduces a compelling counterpoint. The infusion of funds into the sport can break down financial barriers for track stars, allowing them to pursue their passion while enjoying a more secure financial future. The financial elevation of athletes is not merely a pragmatic aspect but also a step toward recognizing the value and dedication they bring to the sport.

Finally, the potential for Saudi Arabia’s investment in athletics is a multifaceted conversation. While financial injections can elevate the status of track and field, ethical considerations and the alignment of sports with political regimes raise crucial questions.