How much is a spot on an Olympian's shoulder worth?
Nick Symmonds put his skin on the eBay auction site, offering to wear a temporary tattoo with the name of the highest bidder as he competes for a spot on the U.S. team for the London Games this summer.
The stunt wasn't so much to make money as it was to make a point. Symmonds, a four-time U.S. outdoor champion in the 800 metres, is a vocal critic of what he says are the "antiquated" sponsorship rules of track and field's international ruling body, the IAAF, and to a lesser extent, the guidelines of USA Track & Field.
He says those rules limit the amount of money athletes can bring in to pursue their careers.
"My No. 1 goal, aside from making the Olympic team and winning a medal, is to bring awareness to how many struggling athletes there are out there — and wouldn't be if we could just lift these regulations and allow athletes to pursue individual sponsorships a little more freely," he said.
The space on Symmonds' shoulder commanded US$11,100 from a Wisconsin-based active lifestyle marketing firm, Hanson Dodge Creative. In return for the winning bid announced on Wednesday, Symmonds will wear the company's Twitter name prominently displayed on his left shoulder throughout the season.
Symmonds won't be able to show the logo at certain events, especially international meets governed by the IAAF. Instead, he'll wear a big bandage over the tattoo, which he believes will bring even more attention to both the company and his personal cause.
He said he'll have to cover up on Feb. 18 when he is expected to run in the Sydney Grand Prix. The first time he'll be able to show it is on May 5, when he plans to run at the Oregon Twilight in Eugene.
Logos and branding have become a big issue in track because athletes depend on sponsorship dollars to be able to train and travel. But there are numerous restrictions on their use and the results can sometimes be almost comical, with athletes forced to use duct tape to cover company emblems and names on their clothes and shoes.
Camille Herron, who ran in the Olympic marathon trials last weekend in Houston, blogged about how she had to cover up the logos of her sponsors, some of which she thought were approved, and have a witness sign off that everything was hidden.
"It's official: I should seek sponsorship with Duck Tape," she wrote.
There are numerous forces at play when it comes to a track and field athlete's ability to display what essentially is an advertisement.
International rules were relaxed earlier this year to permit another small logo, in addition to a shoe and clothing sponsor. But some meets have tighter restrictions because of event sponsors. And some sponsors have exclusivity rules written into contracts with athletes that bar them from wearing multiple logos.
The USATF largely follows the policies in place for specific events. For example, the Prefontaine Classic, held each year in Eugene, Ore., is an IAAF Diamond League event and falls under the international rules. This year's Olympic Trials will be held in Eugene this summer under Olympic rules.
The issue is complicated and riddled with misconceptions, said USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer.
"We struggle against a perception by athletes that if they have the opportunity to wear more logos that it will produce more income opportunity for them," Geer said. "That's not necessarily the case because if they have exclusivity with a shoe contract, they could either lose the shoe contract or it could be devalued."
Similarly, she said, there is no guarantee that athletes could attract multiple sponsors. And there's the question of whether sponsors would want to share space with several others, she said.
"This is an issue that is continuing to evolve," Geer said. "At USA Track & Field, our board of directors is continuing to look at the issue — with athletes — to determine what our best policies should be and that recognize the economic realities of the sport for everyone involved."
Symmonds' activism is drawing attention to the stiff competition for financial aid — especially in hard economic times. The situation is especially problematic for lesser-known athletes who can't attract the lucrative deals that the sport's stars can.
Symmonds, who counts Nike among his major sponsors along with Hanson Dodge, got the idea to put his skin on eBay from shot putter Adam Nelson, who several years back auctioned himself off on eBay for $12,000. To put that sum in perspective, it only paid for about a month of training.
And Symmonds isn't the only one: On Tuesday, British sprinter James Ellington announced he had found a sponsor after a failed bid at attracting one on eBay.
Ellington received a $53,700 offer on the online auction website, but that turned out to be a hoax.
Instead, a shaving product manufacturer, King of Shaves, stepped up and will sponsor the sprinter, who missed out on national lottery support and other sponsorship opportunities because of a string of injuries.
"I couldn't be happier that the deal has been sorted. Now I can focus on winning a medal for Great Britain in the 2012 Olympics," said Ellington, who estimated he needed $46,000 to pay for his Olympic bid.
Symmonds is fortunate. He is one of his sport's more popular figures and therefore commands more sponsorship dollars. It helps that he is already an Olympic veteran from Beijing in 2008.
In that sense, Hanson Dodge Creative is also benefiting from the newly formed alliance.
"Now we really have a stake in an Olympic athlete." company CEO Ken Hanson said. "It gives us a chance to sort of get into the locker room of these sports, get involved more, and support the athletes we believe in. Hopefully, we'll build other relationships with other athletes so that they can break out, and they can help do the same for us."
Symmonds, for his part, understands the bigger picture that sponsorship money helps drive the sport, but he'd also like more resources available for athletes.
"I can't watch these governing bodies let all the advertising dollars pass through them, and only allow a fraction to trickle down to the athletes," he said. "It's not right."