Sprint great Michael Johnson launching ‘Grand Slam Track’ league with $100K first prizes

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Sprinting great Michael Johnson is launching a track league that looks to assemble nearly 100 of the sport’s top performers four times a year to compete for $12.6 million in prize money over its first season.

The league, Grand Slam Track, announced Tuesday that it will launch next April with plans for one event in Los Angeles, the home of the 2028 Olympics, one in another American city and two more overseas.

The league also announced it had signed world-record hurdler Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, lending star power to the new operation almost a year before it opens.

Johnson, who wore his famous golden spikes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics while setting the world record at 200 meters to complete the 200-400 sweep, has long echoed critics in the sport who complain they don’t see enough marquee head-to-head matchups. That’s in part because there’s not enough financial incentive to bring the best to the same meets.

“It’s providing the fans and the athletes what they’ve been asking for,” Johnson said. “I think there’s a real opportunity here. They’re frustrated at an all-time level with the sport, at the elite level, the way it’s been over the last couple of years where they’re not compensated and recognized for their tremendous talent.”

Track’s yearly schedule is a moving target, highlighted by world championships in odd years and the Olympics every four seasons. In between, the sport is a series of individual meets highlighted by the Diamond League, which conducts around 15 competitions each season and allows athletes to earn points and win a season-long title.

As a sign of the sport’s struggles, NBC, which televises the Olympics, did not renew its contract with the Diamond League; which will be carried by the subscription website FloTrack in the U.S. beginning in 2025.

Johnson said television is a priority for his new league, which has been in contact with “all the major broadcasters, with a heavy emphasis for us on the U.S.”

“I’ve been very pleased with the level of interest and excitement about what we’re building., which sort of validates the idea to some degree,” Johnson said.

Grand Slam Track plans to sign 48 athletes, known as “GST Racers,” to contracts, then to use appearance fees to bring another 48 athletes — “GST Challengers” — to each meet. The athletes will be divided into categories — for instance a short-sprint group will run 100 and 200 meters over the course of a weekend — and they will compete for a $100,000 top prize, with cash being awarded down to eighth place.

Johnson said organizers chose the “Grand Slam” title to give the league the same feel as, say, tennis or golf, which each have four majors that stand out among a yearlong schedule. The league has secured more than $30 million in financial commitment. A group called Winners Alliance, described by the league as Johnson’s operating partner, was the lead investor.

Though Johnson has long been critical of the way track is run on a global level, he said he does not see the league as a disruptor but rather as a vehicle to add to a sport he feels is undervalued.

World Athletics, the governing body for track, recently made news with a first-of-its-kind plan to award $50,000 to all of this year’s Olympic gold medalists. The federation also will start an Ultimate Championship beginning in 2026 that will bring the year’s top performers together and award $150,000 first prizes.

Johnson, who has stayed in the sport on a number of levels, including as an analyst for BBC, wants to see track in the spotlight more than once or twice a year.

“I’m motivated by the fact that this is the opportune time to do it,” he said. “The world is looking for something like this that we can step into that void.”

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games

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