Feature21 May 2020

IAAF Mobil Grand Prix - 35th anniversary of the start of the professional era


Steve Cram en route to the world 1500m record in Nice on 16 July 1985 (© Getty Images)

On 25 May 1985, the IAAF Mobil Grand Prix, the world’s first professional global track and field circuit, administered by and operating with the authorisation of the then ‘International Amateur Athletic Federation’, today’s World Athletics, began in San Jose, California with the Bruce Jenner Classic.

While a similar Grand Prix series sponsored by Mobil had been operating since 1982 on the U.S. indoor circuit, “the IAAF Mobil Grand Prix for the first time brought together in a coherent competitive structure of the world’s greatest one-day invitational meetings in the USA and Europe.” (1.)

“Mobil Athletics Focus”, the dedicated newsletter that the IAAF published to promote the new series, described the Grand Prix as, “a new concept in athletics. It puts athletes to the truest test of excellence: consistency at the highest level of competition.”

Seven world records

In the first season, 632 athletes from 42 countries competed in 15 meetings in 13 countries over a three-and-a-half-month period, and seven world records were set.

In Nice on 16 July, Steve Cram fended off Said Aouita in an epic world record battle over 1500m (3:29.67 to 3:29.71).

Later that month in Oslo (27 July), Cram was back to break the mile record (3:46.32). In a night of three world records, Aouita improved the 5000m mark (13:00.40) and Ingrid Kristiansen, in front of her adoring home crowd improved the women’s 10,000m (30:59.42).

On 4 August in Budapest, Cram ran his third world record in 19 days to break John Walker’s 2000m world record with 4:51.39.

In Zurich on 21 August, Mary Slaney set the women’s mile record (4:16.71).

Just two days later in Berlin, Aouita with a 3:29.46 1500m run became the first man since Sandor Iharos in 1955 to hold both the 1500m and 5000m world records.

Ed Moses, double Olympic 400m hurdles champion, reflecting at the end of the first season, said, “The IAAF Mobil Grand Prix unquestionably has elevated track and field’s visibility and provides an ongoing showcase to the American and European public.”


The IAAF Grand Prix series was the first time in the IAAF’s history that it had offered prize money at any of its competitions. There was an overall purse of US$524,000 which was shared out at the series’ final.

Overnight it seemed track and field athletics had gone from amateurism to professionalism. The reality was quite different. Athletics like most sports had been living a lie for most of its modern existence.

The IAAF, founded in 1912, had until the 1980s governed the sport of athletics with a strict set of amateur rules. This patrician view of sport had permitted a limited group of athletes to achieve high level performances by virtue of a privileged social and financial situation.

Throughout this period “the world’s very best athletes could expect to receive money ‘under the table’ from meeting promoters. In a limited number of cases these ‘offenders’ of the amateur ideal were eventually disqualified.” (2.)

The most publicised cases, which David Miller in “The End of Amateurism” (3.) aptly described as amateurism’s “sacrificial lambs”, were Paavo Nurmi of Finland, Jules Ladoumègue of France, and Gunder Hägg, Arne Andersson and Henry Kälarne of Sweden, who were suspended by the IAAF from amateur ranks.

By the late 1970s money started to flow openly into the world of track and field through TV and sponsorship deals. After thriving in hypocrisy for decades it was impossible for the IAAF not to acknowledge that athletes should be able to receive financial reward for their efforts.

Trust funds

In 1982, a new, more realistic definition of amateurism was agreed for IAAF Rule 51. The previous wording was that “An amateur is a person who competes for the love of sport and as a means of recreation, without any motive of securing any material gain from such competition.” This was replaced with “An amateur is one who abides by the eligibility rules of the IAAF”.

At the 34th IAAF Congress which was held in Los Angeles on 31 July and 1 August 1984, ‘Athletic Funds’ were approved. These were trust funds for individual athletes, administered by their national federation, into which the earnings of the athlete from prize money and sponsorship were paid. The athlete was only to have access to the fund after retirement and until then was “not to assign, charge or mortgage the Athletic Fund or in any way borrow against it (Rule 17).”

Along with the trust funds, the LA Congress also approved the start of the IAAF Mobil Grand Prix series in 1985 and agreed to introduce prize money.

While it was another decade before prize money was paid at the World Athletics Championships and not until 2001 that the IAAF ditched the word ‘amateur’ from its name, the professional era of track & field had officially dawned.

By the millennium, the prize money for the circuit final had reached US$3 million.

Even earlier trust funds had been consigned to history, “an interim phase towards full professionalism.” (4.)

Points make prizes

The IAAF Mobil Grand Prix series, whose creation under the presidency of Primo Nebiolo owes much to the West Nally marketing agency of Patrick Nally and BBC television presenter Peter West, included a selected number of event disciplines, 16 in total per season.

In 1985, these were:
Men: 200m, 400m, 1500m, 5000m, 110mh, Pole Vault, Triple Jump, Discus Throw, Javelin Throw
Women: 100m, 800m, 3000m, 400mh, High Jump, Long Jump, Shot Put.

The remaining standard Olympic events were included in the second season of the series, with events continuing that rotation of inclusion over a two-year period.

From San Jose to most of the great capitals of Europe, athletes vied against each other for awards with the series culminating in a Grand Prix Final in Rome on 7 September.

Athletes scored points on a 9-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 basis with an extra six points for breaking a world record or three for tying one.

The top eight athletes in each event, based on scoring from their best five meetings, were invited to the series final, where the points scored were doubled.

At the conclusion of the final, the top six individuals in each event earned prizes “to be paid into their trust funds: $10,000, $7000, $3000, $2000 and $1000. In addition, the top four men and top four women over all events received bonuses of $25,000, $15,000, $10,000, and $5000. For example, since both the 100 metres and the long jump were Grand Prix events for women in the first year, the system allowed athletes to combine points earned from each event and apply them to the overall standings.

Chris Turner for World Athletics Heritage

(1.) Peter Matthews, ATFS Athletics Annual 1985
(2.) Roberto L. Quercetani, Athletics 2014
(3.) David Miller, “The End of Amateurism”, IAAF Centenary book, 2012
(4.) David Miller, “The End of Amateurism”, IAAF Centenary book, 2012

1985 IAAF Mobil Grand Prix calendar

25 May – Bruce Jenner Classic, San Jose, California, USA
1 June – Prefontaine Classic, Eugene, Oregon, USA
8 June – Znamenskiy Memorial, Moscow, URS
22 June – Rosicky Memorial, Prague, TCH
2 July – DN Galen, Stockholm, SWE
4 July – World Games, Helsinki, FIN
16 July – NIKAIA, Nice, FRA
19 July – Peugeot-Talbot Games, London, GBR
17 July – Bislett Games, Oslo, NOR
4 August – Grand Prix, Budapest, HUN
21 August – Weltklasse, Zurich, SUI
23 August – ISTAF, Berlin, FRG
25 August – ASV-Sportfest der Weltklasse, Cologne, FRG
30 August – Ivo van Damme Memorial, Brussels, BEL
7 September – IAAF Mobil Grand Prix Final, Rome, ITA

1985 Season winners
Overall - Doug Padilla (USA) 63, Mike Franks (USA) 60, Sergey Bubka (URS) 59
200m - Calvin Smith (USA) 59, Kirk Baptiste (USA) 48, Desai Williams (CAN) 35.5
400m - Mike Franks (USA) 60, Ray Armstead (USA) 47, Mark Rowe (USA) 44
1500m - Steve Scott (USA) 46, Pierre Délèze (SUI) 44, José Manuel Abascal (ESP) 40
5000m - Doug Padilla (USA) 63, Sydney Maree (USA) 47, Thomas Wessinghage (FRG) 42
110mh - Mark McKoy (CAN) 52, Andre Phillips (USA) 41, Tonie Campbell (USA) 37
Pole vault - Sergey Bubka (URS) 59, Pierre Quinon (FRA) 53, Thierry Vigneron (FRA) 49
Long jump - Mike Conley, Sr. (USA) 49, Larry Myricks (USA) 37, Sergey Layevskiy (URS) 34
Discus throw - Imrich Bugár (TCH) 52, Knut Hjeltnes (NOR) 41, Géjza Valent (TCH) 41
Javelin throw - Tom Petranoff (USA) 55, Dave Ottley (GBR) 50, Einar Vilhjálmsson (ISL) 45

Overall - Mary Slaney (USA) 69, Stefka Kostadinova (BUL) 63, Judi Brown-King (USA) 63
100m - Alice Brown (USA) 46, Merlene Ottey (JAM) 45, Florence Griffith (USA) 38
400m - Jarmila Kratochvílová (TCH) 59, Doina Melinte (ROM) 53, Milena Strnadová (TCH) 43
3000m - Mary Slaney (USA) 69, Maricica Puică (ROM) 53, Lynn Williams (CAN) 37
400mh - Judi Brown-King (USA) 63, Genowefa Błaszak (POL) 53, Debbie Flintoff (AUS) 46
High jump - Stefka Kostadinova (BUL) 63, Louise Ritter (USA) 53, Tamara Bykova (URS) 43.5
Long jump - Galina Chistyakova (URS) 36, Tatyana Rodionova (URS) 30, Jackie Joyner (USA) 25
Shot put - Helena Fibingerová (TCH) 30, Natalya Lisovskaya (URS) 30, Mihaela Loghin (ROM) 24

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