Only a handful of people witness Melissa Bishop-Nriagu’s daily workout: her husband, Osi; her three-year-old daughter; sometimes a coach; and, occasionally, a videographer. On a track in Windsor, Ontario, usually in the morning, the group transforms into cheerleaders and timers as the fastest female 800-metre runner in Canadian history breezes through intervals.

At the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games, Bishop-Nriagu missed a medal in the 800-metre final by thirteen hundredths of a second, about one-third of the time it takes for an eye to blink. The hours she now spends at the track are meant to ensure that, at this year’s Tokyo Olympic Games, she ranks better than fourth.

One humid morning in July, Bishop-Nriagu runs interval sprints—150 metres, 200 metres, 250 metres—again and again. She finishes her morning-long practice and then moves on to her other job: translating what her close circle saw into content for her audience of more than 35,000 Instagram followers. By the afternoon, she posts a short video of herself sprinting the track’s backstretch, her eyes focused unwaveringly on the finish line. The clip joins sponsored posts that Bishop-Nriagu has made for advertisers including Nike, RBC, Advil, Toyota, and Special K Canada.

Bishop-Nriagu, thirty-two, is among an increasingly large group of elite athletes who are turning to influencing to earn a living. Being one of Canada’s highest-performing athletes on its own just doesn’t cover the combined costs of intense training, a mortgage, everyday expenses, and proper child care.

Her endorsements help supplement the money she makes as an athlete. At the 2018 Olympic Games, Canadian competitors earned an average of $28,858. Influencing is just a secondary job—she pads her frequent posting with internationally competitive performances on the track—but it’s a necessary one. In the rapidly evolving influencing economy, many high-performing athletes are discovering that being stronger, faster, or more skilled than everyone else isn’t necessarily the ticket to Instagram success and is no longer the key to signing contracts with brands. Athlete sponsorships go not necessarily to the most athletic but rather to the most persuasive, attractive, and charismatic.

It was 2011, and Bishop-Nriagu had just graduated from the University of Windsor with a degree in human kinetics and teaching and an 800-metre time on the cusp of the Canadian Olympic standard. She had wanted to be a teacher since she was a kid. Her track teammates and coach encouraged her to spend the year trying to qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

Back then, a major sponsorship seemed like a pipe dream. The young runner had little international racing experience, zero Olympic appearances, and her social reach, like that of most people a decade ago, started at family and ended at friends. To find sponsors in order to raise enough money for training costs, Bishop-Nriagu had to get creative, so she mailed letters to building-supply shops, grocery stores, and dentistry clinics around Eganville, a town of 1,000 located about 130 kilometres west of Ottawa.

She posted the business logos of her sponsors on her running blog. “I think eight people per month read that blog,” she says, “but it was the best way I had to share my results.” The job of an elite athlete, she quickly came to realize, does not stop at the finish line. In fact, it has two parts. The first is to reach and maintain world-class athletic calibre. The second is to find a way to financially support the first.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) does little to fund the athletes who compete. This disconnect originated with the games’ amateur roots. During the nineteenth-century revival of the Olympic Games, competitive sports were the preserve of upper-class men and were treated as hobbies as opposed to professional pursuits. One consequence of this was that Olympians were not allowed to accept money for competing. The IOC loosened the rules in 1985, allowing more professional athletes to participate in the games, but aspects of the play-for-free ethos lingers. The IOC, for instance, offers competitors no cash rewards—the onus falls on each member nation to fund its own athletes.

Data from CAN Fund, a charity that supports Canadian athletes, shows that 62 percent of athletes who apply to the charity are in debt or have negative net incomes. The most an athlete can make through Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program is $1,765 monthly, which works out to $21,180 per year and qualifies them as “low income.” The program also has an athlete excellence fund, available only to those who win an Olympic gold ($20,000), silver ($15,000) or bronze ($10,000) medal. As of February 2019, a total of 1,955 athletes had benefited from the program. At the last Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, only twenty-two Team Canada athletes won medals and were presented with prize money.

It’s not just Canadian elite athletes who face financial hurdles: in 2016, Inc. magazine reported that eighty-nine athletes from around the world had launched campaigns on the crowdfunding site GoFundMe to help pay for training for the Rio Olympics. A 2020 Ekos report prepared for the Department of Canadian Heritage found that Canadian Olympians finish every year with close to $22,000 in deficits.

Olympic medal results suggest that supports for Canadian athletes are paying off. Team Canada placed third in total medals in at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, in 2010, and Pyeongchang, in 2018, and fourth in Sochi, in 2014. Canada is also steadily climbing the world medals leaderboard for the summer games, placing fifteenth in Beijing, in 2008; fourteenth in London, in 2012; and tenth in Rio, in 2016.

For most athletes, however, contributing to those results is a labour of love. Bishop-Nriagu says that, even in some of her highest-performing years, she does not receive enough from Sport Canada to cover the $40,000 she needs to train at her fullest, let alone to help support her family and save for the future. What Canadian athletes receive from the government is not enough to cover a mortgage payment, equipment, and coaching fees, she says. “It’s not enough to support someone who is in my place in life. I’m lucky to have had sponsorship dollars in my career . . . and I’m aware that not everybody is that lucky.”

Bishop-Nriagu’s track career was taking off in 2013. She had raced in her first Olympics the previous year, where she became just the third Canadian woman to run the 800 metres in less than two minutes, and later qualified for the World Championships. Her results turned important heads, like those of Nike executives, who signed her to a professional contract. Soon after she started wearing the iconic check mark, she created an Instagram profile to boost her visibility and maybe attract more sponsors. “I had no idea of the power Instagram would have,” she says. “I don’t think anybody did.” Bishop-Nriagu was entering the influencing industry, now worth more than $13.8 billion (US), when the term influencer had still barely been coined.

With every good race and subsequent running photo, Bishop-Nriagu’s follower count grew, as did her endorsement opportunities. Some deals helped her with day-to-day expenses and others gave her perks like free nutrition products, a Toyota Highlander SUV, and when she became a mother, free Huggies diapers and a Bugaboo baby stroller.

Not only are opportunities plentiful for influencers, they are increasingly lucrative. Depending on an influencer’s follower count, brands can pay up to thousands of dollars per sponsored post. InfluencerDB, a software company that used statistics to evaluate influencer value and impact, reported that an Instagram post from Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris was worth $3,410 (US) while one from the CrossFit star Brent Fikowski was worth $2,856 (US). Last year, one of tennis star Eugenie Bouchard’s posts to her 2 million Instagram followers was worth $10,593 (US).

Brands want to sponsor people who are visible, and they are willing to pay to be associated with this visibility, says Dave Korell, category manager at New Balance Canada. Korell’s role with the brand is to boost sales by promoting authentic storytelling about New Balance and its products. The emphasis on visibility, Korell says, means that decisions around sponsorships are heavily weighted to favour social presence over athletic performance. “We’re looking for someone who can tell a genuine story on social media and who can do well on the performance space,” he says.

Olympians vying for a piece of the influencing pie must now compete not only against one another for athletic brand deals but also against influencers like Charlie Watson, a nonprofessional runner, writer, and dietitian. Watson fell into the world of influencing six years ago: she set up an Instagram account under the handle @therunnerbeans and posted daily about two of her hobbies, running and cooking. Today, she still might not have international athletic experience, but she does have more than 68,000 followers.

“I did not expect the account to pick up like it did,” Watson says. As her following grew over the years, she was surprised when race directors started offering her free entry to their events—and then shocked when brands like New Balance, Adidas, and Garmin approached her with influencing opportunities. Eventually, she made enough money influencing to cover her living expenses while attending university. Watson does approximately two to three paid posts per month, for which she makes about $1,000 per post.

Many noninfluencing world-class athletes, meanwhile, scramble to get contracts. For Nate Brannen, a retired 1,500-metre runner and 2016 Canadian Olympic finalist, the tail end of his career was marked more by social capital than by athletic achievement. Brannen says that, over his thirteen-year career, brands changed what they wanted from him. In 2005, fresh out of college, he signed a five-year, six-figure deal with Reebok based on performance alone. At first, he was simply expected to wear a brand’s gear and compete at a high level. But, around 2008, he realized that companies were using the recession as an excuse to lower what they were paying athletes.

“I saw this decline in sponsorship dollars for professionals,” he says. By 2010, his contract with Reebok had ended and he had signed a new professional deal with competing brand Saucony. But Brannen was still not particularly active on social media, so he opened a running store in Tallahassee, Florida, to secure a steady income in the event that he’d one day find himself without a sponsorship. That day came six years later. In 2016, Brannen finished a career-best tenth in the Rio Olympic 1,500-metre final. No Canadian man had placed that well in sixteen years, but when his contract with Saucony expired, four months after the Olympics, the company did not re-sign him. When he was told that Saucony wasn’t renewing the contract, Brannen was surprised. Making oneself visible across platforms was easier than having to win national championships or make a world final, but Brannen says it troubled him that his livelihood no longer had much to do with athletic performance. He was also getting older, he notes, and he understands the desire of companies to partner with athletes who have longer careers ahead of them.

Around the time Brannen lost his Saucony sponsorship, Corey Bellemore, a rising track-and-field star, broke the world record in the beer mile, a race that combines running and drinking beer. Today, Bellemore is an Olympic hopeful in the 1,500 metres and has represented Canada internationally on several occasions. But it was only after he broke the beer mile world record and gained international recognition that he inked a sponsorship deal with Adidas. Brannen couldn’t help but notice, and in December 2016, soon after Bellemore’s sponsorship started, he tweeted, “Make Olympic Final, lose contract. Run a Beer Mile, gain contract. Something doesn’t seem right here. Or maybe I need to switch events.”

Brannen says he just could not bring himself to play along. “Sure, if I wanted to, I could get on camera and play that game. But it’s not my personality to do that for some extra money. And I’m a better athlete when I don’t bother with that stuff.”

Taylor Purdy, a Canadian skeleton racer, winces when he recalls his attempt at growing an online following in 2015. Back then, the Calgary-based athlete worked a job that was eating away at his training hours, but he needed the money. In an attempt to pad his bank account in a manner more compatible with his training schedule, Purdy hired a videographer to shoot a seven-minute “day in the life” video. In it, he lifts weights, jumps hurdles, and pedals on a spin bike, all while discussing the financial difficulties Olympians tend to face.

Purdy posted it on YouTube, thinking his vulnerability might strike a chord with audiences. But the video barely got a few hundred views. Even worse, he says, it elicited snickers from fellow Olympic hopefuls. While the response did little to deter him from chasing his Olympic dream, he said it did plenty to extinguish his desire to become an influencer.

Those who can lucratively tap into the athlete-sponsorship market, says Purdy, are a rare breed. He saw it happen to his contemporary bobsledder Jon Montgomery. At the 2010 Winter Olympics, in Vancouver, the red-bearded Canadian gulped from a pitcher of beer while walking through the Whistler Olympic Village shortly after winning the gold medal in skeleton. The clip went viral and Montgomery’s visibility skyrocketed. He appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, co-hosted the Juno Awards, and was able to quit his full-time job as an auctioneer to become the host of The Amazing Race Canada. Chevrolet, Adidas, and Go RVing Canada have come calling. “Jon is a charismatic Olympic gold medallist who was also at the right place at the right time,” Purdy says. “So much had to happen for him to gain that visibility. He was one in a million.”

“Getting sponsored is not so much about the sport anymore, it’s ‘What story are you going to tell?’” says Yiran Su, an assistant professor in sports marketing at the University of Georgia. “It all comes down to how many likes, how many followers, how many shares per post. . . . That is eventually what matters.” Su used her doctoral dissertation to explore what factors make influencing work for some athletes and not for others. She sums up her research in a single sentence: “Receiving attention from brands and getting sponsors is about having a compelling personality.”

The most successful influencers, Su says, convey both expertise and likeability. When an influencer displays the relevant knowledge, skills, or experience to make correct and objective assertions, they earn what Su and other researchers call “cognitive source credibility.” In other words, viewers trust influencers they perceive to be experts. For example, people will trust elite marathon runners more when they endorse a pair of running shoes than when they endorse, say, an electric guitar. So, all else being equal, a marathoner would be a more valuable influencer for Adidas than for Fender guitars. But people are also more likely to believe a message delivered by someone who is physically attractive and similar to themselves. That is called “affective source credibility,” and according to Su, it is even more powerful than perceived expertise. “In the end, viewers are drawn to influencers who are knowledgeable, trustworthy, and attractive,” Su says, “and trustworthiness is the most important out of the three.”

It’s difficult to conclusively say whether an Olympian is better positioned than an average fit-looking person to acquire sponsorships, Su says. What’s increasingly apparent, however, is that Olympians like Bishop-Nriagu and Purdy are no longer just competing with one another for influencer dollars: they are competing with Charlie Watson, beer milers, and anybody who takes fun videos of their ab workout while brandishing Lululemon tops or three-striped Adidas pants.

Charlene Weaving, a sport philosopher at St. Francis Xavier University, in Nova Scotia, says that the situation is only going to get more challenging for elite athletes hoping to capitalize on the influencing boom. She predicts that the rise of influencing will exacerbate the disconnect between athletic performance and sponsorship earnings that has existed for many years and will also amplify long-lasting inequalities in sponsorship.

The world of Olympic sponsorship “was never a meritocracy,” says Weaving, who researches ethical issues in the Olympic Games. “It’s always been generally harder for Olympians in obscure sports like shotput and fencing, for women, for Olympians with little sex appeal, and even for racialized Olympians to secure endorsements.” Influencing, Weaving says, may also lead to some athletes making regrettable decisions. “My concern is that athletes, especially women, will go in stereotypical hypersexualization mode out of desperation,” she says.

This landscape where the fittest don’t necessarily prevail, however, is not all bad, Weaving says, because it does create opportunities for athletes to earn reasonable money in ways not available to them before. Su agrees that the rise of influencing in elite sports comes with advantages: it can help athletes who historically would not get much exposure connect with audiences and grow a personal brand. “It could be very fruitful for someone who didn’t already have a platform,” she says, “but who has a good story or is good on camera.”

In the world of athletics, influencing and sports have become intricately intertwined. Companies like Opendorse and Inflcr exist to help athletes build personal followings and connect with brands. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which historically forbade financial opportunities for its student athletes, announced in April 2020 that players would be allowed to accept payment for sponsored social media content beginning in the 2021/22 academic season. This ruling could open the door to millions of dollars for the league’s most followed athletes.

Bishop-Nriagu says she expects influencing to be a part of her life for as long as she is a professional athlete. But she also understands the value of time in a way that is particular to being the mother of a young child—or a fourth-place Olympic final finisher. “You get out of [social media influencing] what you put into it,” she says. “And I’m not completely invested in it like I am on the track. If I were willing to be on my phone 24/7, then yes, there is greater opportunity to make money there. I don’t want to take that time.”

Influencing, she says, has bought her time at the track, time she otherwise would have had to spend fundraising or teaching. But it’s just a means to more important ends: a medal at the next Olympics and a comfortable life beyond that. So she uses the tool carefully, unwilling to lengthen the rest between her intervals or shorten playtime with her daughter to create perfect captions, fiddle with filters, or find the right combination of hashtags that will get her trending. “I feel like I have more talent on the track than I do posting about my life,” she says. “I’m a mom and a track athlete first, and then an influencer second.”

Alex Cyr
Alex Cyr has written for the Globe and Mail and the Literary Review of Canada. He is the author of Runners of the Nish: A Season in the Sun, Rain, Hail and Hell.
Aaron Marin
Aaron Marin is a collage artist based in New York.