Clearing all the hurdles

Clearing all the hurdles

Gianni Frankis on the challenges athletes face being self-employed

In the opinion of many he was on the fast track to Olympic glory. He was one of the emerging golden generation who would one day step up to the podium reserved for the greats.

He broke the British junior track record for the 110m hurdles when he was just 17-yearsold. He broke the record again at junior level. With the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner at the time, Gianni Frankis had something he described as “Olympic fever”.

He wanted to be an Olympic champion and had “no thoughts of it not happening”. But as he set out on the path to make the 2012 Olympics, the reality of being a full-time athlete kicked in.

Most people may not realise, but athletes work on self-employed contracts, which can often be very restricted, Gianni claims. As a result, he found he himself facing some of the challenges many independent professionals face, with the biggest one being fluctuating income.

The cost of competing in high-profile competitions and earning a living as an athlete was a highly debated topic at this year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia. The big question raised was: ‘is it too expensive to win a gold medal?’

The New Daily, an Australian national newspaper reported at the time: “While players in Australia’s dominant codes – rugby league, rugby union and AFL – can earn six figure salaries, many athletes competing at the games are fortunate to scrape enough together just to cover their living expenses. For younger athletes wanting to reach the elite level, it can often be difficult just to get to training camps.

“Gymnast Alex Eade had to fork out travel costs to get to Canberra in the spring, where the Commonwealth Games trials were being held.”

This is a fact Gianni says he can relate to and is not something that people tell you when you start out.

So where did his passion for becoming an athlete stem from? Although Gianni has been competing in the 110m hurdles and 100m sprints on the track for over a decade now, being a runner was not something he had initially considered, he tells me.

“Football was my original passion and I did start to play at a semi-professional level,” the Arsenal fan says. “But a teacher at King John School and Sixth Form noticed that I was a particularly good runner and the hurdles was something that I took to quite naturally.

“At the point I switched, I was playing in the Isthmian League for a team called Heybridge Swifts – I was 17 then. I was also invited to train with the England schools under-18s; I was a striker but didn’t make the cut.”

The 30-year-old from Basildon, Essex goes on to add: “I made the final switch to athletics just around my nineteenth birthday and at the time, I was also the British under-18 110m hurdles record holder. I won a bronze medal at the World Youth Championships in 2005, which at the time was a British record.

Back then, it had just been announced that the 2012 Olympics would be held in London, so in my mind it was just a case of working hard, keeping going and hopefully I’d make it.”

When it comes to inspiration, Gianni, who began training at Basildon Athletics Club when he was 13, says it was one of his schoolteachers who encouraged him to take up the sport. But it was Chinese hurdler and former world record holder, Liu Xiang, who really inspired him to make a career out of it.

He adds: “I used to watch him the most on videos and try to emulate his technique in training. In particular, the Athens Olympic final in 2004, where he won gold really inspired me a lot to try to make a career myself.

“The world was my oyster back then. I continued to improve and represent Great Britain at a senior level. But at this point I started to get more injuries, which is not uncommon.”

He explains: “When you are young, you can run along and sometimes you don’t need to even warm up. Your body can take a lot. But as you get older, you have to refine that training and often during this process, you can get injured.

“I basically had a long list of injuries around the hamstrings, hips and quads, which is typical for a hurdler. These injuries would keep me out for long periods and it was at this point that I was dropped off lottery funding.”

Like many athletes who have made the British team, Gianni had become dependent on lottery funding as a source of income. As a result, when he lost this, he was unable to recover properly and in the years that he did recuperate enough to compete, he could no longer continue to build and train himself year on year.

“When you are an athlete on the lottery fund, you are essentially on an unsecured, selfemployed contract, with the promise of living expenses,” Gianni, who also now works as a supply teacher, says.

“But within a year, you can be either injured or simply dropped off the funding for no reason other than someone else needs the money, and you are forced to leave that set-up completely. I think that this is exploitative.”

Like many self-employed people who sometimes take on work from clients simply to ensure they can pay the bills, Gianni also had to do the same while he was on lottery funding. He claims the funds were not enough to cover all living expenses and many athletes will do other jobs.

“Apart from when I was at university where I had a grant, I’ve had to top up my income. I’ve done many jobs from leafleting, to modelling, school inspirational visits and supply teaching. There are very few who can actually earn enough solely from athletics,” he says.

“Most of my best performances came when I was at university, but afterwards I found it very hard to focus, maintain competing and fulfil my potential with other pressures in life. Though I continued to plug away, because I loved it.”

Gianni’s passion for the sport is unquestionable, but he does believe the culture around funding needs to change. The world of athletics should be “fair and transparent”.

“We need to improve the conditions we operate in and anything that is against our interest,” he tells me. “Many athletes run for free at events, with no expenses paid for, and the appeals selections seem to circle back to the same panel, or selections can be completely unexplained.

“This is to the point where the governing bodies have closed down events and grassroots facilities without consultation. In south London, there is now a scarcity of tracks” So, what are some of the biggest restrictions the governing body imposes on athletes? For athletes, Gianni, who usually trains at Newham Leisure Centre but has taken time out recently to work on his career outside of athletics, says that one of the biggest obstacles they face is around sponsorship on the vest.

“It’s possible in those profitable events across the country, the governing body may not be able to pay prize money or expenses to everyone. But there’s no reason not to open up other revenue streams for us to be able to cash in on it either. At the moment, in a lot of cases it means people are not getting paid at all as they restrict personal sponsorship as an event sponsor has asked for exclusive rights.”

At major events, Gianni claims: “The runners run in their amateur club vests, which is essentially us running on a voluntary basis. They call it the trials as you can only run for Team GB if you turn up for this – so your hands are completely tied. I would like a relaxation in these rules and regulations for our personal sponsorship use, just like in other sports. .

“And you wouldn’t expect someone who is at the bottom of a league not to get paid. Everyone is valued. They may not be getting paid as much, but its fair.”

Fair sponsorship and finances is just one of the issues Gianni believes needs to change in the sport. Others include looking into the processes around selection, appeals and whistleblowing procedures; protecting funded athletes; supporting non-funded athletes; backing masters athletes and opening up the contract terms and conditions so athletes can work as free independent agents.

And it is not just athletes, Gianni believes the governing bodies should be supporting selfemployed coaches too. He claims that coaches are often undervalued, and they should have a right to a contract.

He finishes by saying: “I’m not saying we should do anything that halts the sport; we actually want to run, the fans want us to run and they want to see a British team that is competitive. The last thing I’d want to see is an environment where athletes don’t want to run. Something needs to change.”