When the games began, to be eligible to compete athletes were required to be amateurs. To maintain amateur status meant athletes were not allowed to make money from sports. For many decades this was strictly enforced. If an athlete was found to have accepted money or commercial endorsements he or she was banned from competition in the games. In fact one of the United States most revered athletes, Jim Thorpe, who won Olympic Gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm games, was stripped of his medals when it came to light that he played two seasons of semi-professional baseball before competing in the Olympics*.
The spirit of the Olympics - sportsmanship along with the love of sport was the driving force behind the Olympic movement and was held in high esteem. It was long thought that monetization of the events and the athletes would degrade the core qualities that the Olympics embodied: friendship, solidarity, and fair play.
The degradation of the Olympics as a truly amateur athletic competition seemed to begin when countries began government sponsorship of their athletes. It was felt government-sponsored athletes were in essence professional athletes, so a precedent for allowing professional athletes to compete was already being set. Then came television and ever increasing media coverage of the games. The popularity of the viewership was an advertiser’s dream. Between politics and the plethora of money that could be made from the games, and the athletes participating in them, it wasn’t long before the IOC began rethinking the amateur rule. In 1986 the amateur rule was abolished and professional athletes have been participating in the games ever since.
One of the first forays of Team USA into sending professional athletes is the 1992 Dream Team. Just three of the players named to the team, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird, had already earned among them: 10 NBA championship wins, 7 NBA Finals MVPs, and 8 regular season MVPs prior to the games. Add Scottie Pipen, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullen, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, and Christian Laettner and this was a powerhouse team. They averaged 8 years of playing professional basketball. Jordan, Ewing, and Mullen had already earned Olympic Gold at the 1984 games (all college players at the time). Yes, seeing all of this talent play together on one team had an extreme cool factor. It was an exciting prospect. But was it the right team to send to an Olympic Games?
- They trained as a team for six days, two hours a day, twelve whole hours worth of effort as a team. They also played some exhibition games. If it took so little effort on their part to prepare how is this fair play?
- They didn’t stay in the Olympic Village during the games; one of the reasons cited being security concerns. How did this promote friendship and solidarity?
- They won the gold medal by beating Croatia by 32 points. Is that supposed to garner national pride?
Were they an amazing team? Yes. Did their presence at the games elevate the sport worldwide? Yes. Did they really embody what the Olympic Games are all about? I don’t think so.
Another factor that has impacted the trend toward professional athletes participation is the ability of many athletes to stay in it longer and still be competitive. While I support and admire their ability to do so, and while I would love for them to stay active and competitive in their sports, I don’t think they should continue to compete in the Olympic Games. I love watching Michael Phelps swim. What he has accomplished, 22 medals (18 of them gold) in three Olympic Games, is phenomenal. He likely will compete in his fourth Olympics in Rio. I’m just not sure I want him to. Yes he could win more medals and break more records; he’s exciting to watch and he will bring in lots of money. But when is enough, enough? How many talented swimmers lost their opportunity to shine because he wouldn’t step aside? Will gold number 19 be as sweet as the first?
The professionalization of the Olympics has long been debated and I doubt there will ever again be an Olympic Games without professional athletes. I wish, however, that it had remained purely an amateur event. I believe this is what made it special and unique, the ideal of sport for the love of sport.
Don’t misunderstand, I have no problem with athletes getting endorsements and winning money or being paid for what they do. They work and train damn hard. They are truly talented and deserve to be recognized for their talent. I don’t believe payment and endorsements should factor into their Olympic eligibility.
I do believe there should be some eligibility requirements surrounding the length of time they have been competing and the number of Olympic Games they are allowed to compete in. Perhaps this could be achieved by setting age limits or capping the number of games an individual can participate in. I would love to still see the Olympics as the rise of someone’s career. To come back after four years and defend – that is still exciting to me. To return for a third or fourth – I’d rather someone else have his or her moment.
Maybe I’m just a fan of the underdog. I love a great story of triumph against the odds. But will the professionalization of the Olympics ever again produce a Miracle on Ice? I want to see the Jamaican Bobsled Team and Eddie the Eagle compete! I want to see them succeed even if success is just making it to the finish line. I want to see competitors with a fire in their belly to achieve a life long dream. I want magic to happen!
Check back monthly for more Olympic updates and commentary as I countdown to Rio 2016! For information on all things Olympic in Rio 2016 visit http://www.rio2016.com/en. To follow Team USA visit http://www.teamusa.org/.
*Jim Thorpe’s Olympic titles were restored in 1983, 30 years after his death.