Why so many Olympic hopefuls are running in all-black, unbranded gear

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Christopher Royster, left, and JT Smith, athletes who participate in Bandit Running’s Unsponsored Project, at the 2024 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Courtesy: Bandit Running

There’s an army of unsponsored athletes commanding attention at the U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials this year, decked out in all-black, logo-less gear.

The 35 athletes are supported by apparel company Bandit Running’s Unsponsored Project, an effort to challenge the standard sponsorship model for professional athletes and boost up-and-coming competitors.

Unsponsored athletes in track and field would typically purchase their own apparel bearing the emblems of major brands, effectively providing free advertising for the companies. Instead, Bandit Running offers Olympic hopefuls the all-black kits and warmups — along with short-term endorsement deals.

Bandit co-founder Tim West said the company is giving out at least 35 two-week deals for unsponsored runners at the trials, a U.S. Olympian’s gateway into the four-year games. The deals consist of unbranded apparel, a platform and cash to cover expenses. Last year, Bandit partnered with nine athletes.

“We’re really hoping for a new sponsorship model where brands take a healthy piece of their budget and apply it to the kind of amateur, sub-elite athlete to help grow the sport. I think when you lift up, sort of the bottom, everything pushes up,” West told CNBC.

Bandit’s deals have a built-in release clause, West said, allowing an easy out for athletes who get a traditional sponsorship offer during the trials.

Given the high prices associated with competing, West said unsponsored athletes are “investing in themselves,” posing an opportunity for brands to step in and help out.

And, the all-black, logo-free kits help call attention to which athletes may be available to strike a longer-term deal.

Among them is Courtney Okolo, a 400-meter runner.

After winning a gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics and being sponsored by Nike for four years, Okolo, 30, is embracing the Unsponsored Project. She said getting support while competing without a sponsorship is difficult, but Bandit’s initiative makes it feel like she isn’t doing it all on her own.

Courtney Okolo, an athlete participating in Bandit Running’s Unsponsored Project, at the 2024 Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon.
Courtesy: Bandit Running

Considering the costs of training, flying to Eugene, Oregon, for the trials, booking a hotel and buying apparel to compete in, Okolo said, even just showing up to compete is expensive. Though she added that she’s been able to pace herself with money acquired over four years via her previous sponsorship, only a few athletes within the sport have such partnerships.

“I know for a lot of athletes, it’s super hard,” Okolo said. “They could still be running well, but financially, they can’t do it because training and all that takes so much of your time. It’s hard to have another full-time career to support yourself financially and train and be the best athlete. So, sometimes you have to just pick one or the other, and that can be really tough.”

Since graduating college, Brandee Johnson, 26, has been working two jobs and a side gig while training for hours a day to make her Olympic dreams happen. Johnson is an unsponsored track athlete who qualified for the Olympic trials this year.

Johnson said she joined the Unsponsored Project as an alternative avenue to achieving her goal, while attaching her name to something that is making a positive impact in peoples’ lives.

“It helps me be more comfortable and take a deep breath and be like, ‘Okay, I can do this, and I have everything that I need in order to be successful,'” Johnson said.

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