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Olympic Runners Find Unique Was To Raise Funds


Anyone who watches NASCAR knows the cars out on the track are plastered with ads. Golfers almost all wear their sponsorships, but not U.S. Olympians.

NPR's Mike Pesca reports that some runners are now chafing at the long-standing rules blocking them from raising sponsorship money.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The steeple chase is seven and a half times around the track, leaping over 28 hurdles and seven water barriers along the way. Start typing steeplechase into YouTube and auto complete quickly suggests steeplechase fail. Indeed, videos of athletes going head-first into the drink may well be this sports best shot at widespread notoriety. Or maybe it's Anthony Famiglietti.

Fam, as most call him, is a two-time Olympian who goes head-first into everything in life other than the water. But in a sport like steeplechase, the only kind of sponsorship a runner can realistically hope for comes from shoe companies. And Anthony Famiglietti had a problem - a big one, in fact.

ANTHONY FAMIGLIETTI: I haven't told anybody this, but I have arthritis in my foot, and it hurts every single day. When I race the steeplechase, it's bone on bone in my foot. And so, why do I still go out there when it's still painful? One of my new slogans for the company is Sustain the Pain, where you're putting yourself out there to overcome these things that you struggle with in life.

PESCA: The arthritis has caused Famiglietti to jettison his usual equipment.

FAMIGLIETTI: The shoes didn't fit.


FAMIGLIETTI: If the shoes don't fit, there's really nothing you can do. There's only one shoe that I can wear, of the thousands of shoes on the market. And trust me, I've tried everything. Zappos probably hates me.

PESCA: Zappos wasn't the problem. His sponsor was. Can't wear the shoes, can't take the money. So Fam came up with another source of funding. Through his site Reckless Running, Famiglietti solicited donations, and rewarded a randomly selected donor by displaying the donor's sons name on a racing shirt. An idea was born. Fam is now selling sponsorship spots on his shirt.

Rules prohibit him from wearing the singlet in Olympic gualifying competition or the games themselves, but in all the races leading up to those events, he'll proudly display your name, cause, Twitter feed, or weekly special on apricots.

This idea, breaking free of the tight sponsorship guidelines of the U.S. Track and Field federation, isn't unique to Famiglietti. Nick Symmonds, America's top man in the 800 meters, auctioned off ad space on his shoulder in the form of a temporary tattoo.

NICK SYMMONDS: The manufacturers of the clothing, if they don't want to have logos distracting from their beautiful outfits, I understand that. However, for someone to tell me what I can or can't put on my body is absurd.

PESCA: A Milwaukee-based marketing company bought the space for a little over $11,000. Symmonds says his primary sponsor, Nike - who he appreciates as a sponsor he wants known - has not formally commented on the tattoo, which he has to cover with duct tape before Nationals or during the Olympics.

Symmonds will use the money for such necessities as groceries and transportation, which many of his competitors in the Olympics have supplied for them by their national federations. Like Famiglietti, who's 33, Symmonds is a relative veteran at age 28, and he allows that it might be hard for less experienced athletes to see beyond the next day's training session.

SYMMONDS: I don't necessarily think it's the athlete's job to rally behind me and, you know, spit in the face of the governing bodies. Absolutely not. Athletes, their first priority needs to be to run well. I just happen to get a kick out of all this.

PESCA: Symmonds and Famiglietti are the rare athletes who don't mind rattling the cages of the international sportocracy. Like all elite athletes, their training and preparation reflects a monastic devotion to their sport. But for them, vows of poverty and silence need not be part of the package.

Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mike Pesca
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.