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February 18, 2006

Show Them the Money

Jeff posted an interesting comment to my article about the Winter Olympics, asking for my take on allowing professional athletes to compete. In the midst of a long-winded reply, I figured I could make a whole post out of the topic.

It seems like the issue of professionals in the games primarily revolves around two high-profile sports: basketball for the Summer Games, and hockey in the Winter Games. Everybody remembers the days when our amateur b-ball teams would routinely kick the rest of the world around, and anybody over the age of 5 in 1980 probably remembers the whole country going nutty about the “Miracle on Ice” hockey team at Lake Placid.

Like everyone else, I have a soft spot in my heart for that team, both for their athletic achievement, and for the galvanizing effect they had on the entire country at a time when we desperately needed it. To this day, I can’t watch footage from the USSR game or sit through the movie “Miracle” without my eyes getting all watery.

But for the time being, let’s forget about basketball and hockey. What about the athletes in all the other sports? I would guess that for the majority of them, the concept of “amateurism” is an anachronism, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

For example, consider the plight of most runners. How many of us wouldn’t love to have a portion of our living expenses paid for, so we could have one extra day off work per week to sleep in before training, do a second workout later in the day, or just take a nap whenever we felt like? And how much cooler would it be to have enough sponsor support that we didn’t have to work at all? How much better a runner would you be?

While the number of runners who are fortunate enough to be full-time athletes is quite small, it is necessary for long-term development of our best athletes. It also provides runners a much longer and potentially more fruitful career than they were allowed 40 years ago.

I wrote a a series of articles one summer about Roger Bannister and other great runners of the 1950s, and mentioned how all of them retired from the sport at a very young age. There was simply no money to be made in the sport - even though milers were the most popular athletes in the world.

Bannister was only 24 when he hung up his racing cleats for good. Could he have won an Olympic medal if he stayed in the sport another eight years? Nobody knows, but for Hicham El Guerrouj, those extra opportunities made the difference between being remembered as the greatest miler of all time instead of a heartbreaking failure.

Bannister was a medical student while he trained as a world-class runner. How much faster could he have run if he had sponsorship revenue to support him, so he could postpone medical school for a few years?

The notion of pure amateurism was frequently nonsensical, anyway. America’s best hope to break the first 4-minute mile, Wes Santee, was once barred from further competition because he accepted a wristwatch as a prize for winning a race (It wasn’t even a Garmin – just a regular old watch). Could this type of enforcement exist today? And how exactly does it benefit the runners?

I’m not throwing all of the old ways under the bus. Quite the opposite: I’m about as old-school as they come when it comes to sports, especially the Olympics.

(In fact, I’ve never been more disappointed in an American winter team than I am about this current one. Seriously – do you think 10 years from now people will regard Apolo Ohno, Johnny Weir, and Bode Miller in the same way they do Eric Heiden, Bonnie Blair, Scott Hamilton, or Bill Johnson? It seems like they’re more concerned about being celebrities than winning medals. Two words: Lindsey Jacobellis.)

But on this topic, I think having professionals compete is a natural, inevitable progression. If our guys don’t spend every waking minute training, they’ll lose to somebody who does. The line between amateurism and professionalism, if it even exists anymore, has been blurred beyond distinction.

Finally, back to that Miracle on Ice game: I’ve always considered it the athletic equivalent of landing a man on the moon. We’ll probably never again see such a perfect confluence of political tension, athletic accomplishment, and global theater. I feel privileged to have seen it, because I don't think we'll see a situation like that ever again.

The fact that the Americans were amateurs was only one portion of the formula. More important was the way they represented the letters on their jerseys, and the pride and glory they earned for themselves - and by extension, for all of us watching.

That’s still what the Olympics are all about. Regardless of whether or not the athletes are paid.


olga 2/18/06, 3:58 PM  

Agree on "amateurs" part - show money, and some wrong reasons are driving them. Not all, but some.

jeff 2/26/06, 6:56 PM  

i think my beef is with the 'pros' in the team sports. is there a difference with taking a paycheck to compete, or being sponsored? that's a fine line, for sure.

would the olympic marathon in greece have been as exciting without paula, katherine and colleen in it? i don't think so. did they represent their countries well? absolutely.

you touched on another issue, and that's the represntation. bodie? holy cow, stop interviewing that cad, will you? i loved what bob costas had to say about him last night. something along the lines of, "if you cease to give it your all and if you cease to try to win, the fans will cease to care."

but, how poor of a representation of americans are they? i mean, aren't a good majority of americans egoists? belly gazers? slackers? i'm not so sure that bodie wasn't a good person to send on the us team.

did you see the enthusiasm of the canadian speed skaters? the joy? the unbridaled excitement? THAT is what the olympic spirit is about.

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