It's been 10 years since the distinction between "amateur" and "professional" was deleted from the Olympic charter-- and what has it bought us? Many argue that the advent of professionalism has devalued the Olympic spirit envisioned by the modern event's originator, France's Pierre de Coubertin. De Coubertin believed the modern Olympics should be a pristine, apolitical arena where "amateur" athletes indulge in pure competition and rejoice in the heights of human achievement.
The Olympic mystique suggested that anyone could be a contender. Ordinary people dreamed of competing in the Olympics, and the dreams spurred athletic activity all over the world.
Now that has changed... Olympic athletes have sponsors, expensive equipment, and the luxury of training full time. Money has changed the look and feel of the Olympics in the second half of the 20th century.
Indeed, the influx of corporate involvement has caused some sticky moments. According to Olympic lore, basketball star Michael Jordon and his "Dream Team"-mates almost boycotted the medal ceremony in Barcelona because the team's Nike loyalties and paraphernalia clashed with the podium, which sported the corporate symbol of the American team sponsor, Reebok. The podium was draped in the American flag to avoid embarrassment. Many predict the visibility of product advertising at the Olympics will only increase. "An Olympic athlete running in a Hertz uniform is a generation away," says Mark McCormack, a U.S. promoter who is regarded as the most powerful entrepreneur in international sport.
July 17, 1996: Former Olympians talk about the thrill of competing and winning.
A surprising and entertaining article on the history of the modern games.
1996 Olympic Games
Is the spirit of the Olympics alive and well, or muddled and overly commercial? Did the Olympic Committee make a mistake by allowing professionals to compete? John Lucas, a former Olympic athlete, author of 5 books on Olympic history, and the official lecturer of the Olympics Committee, answers your questions.
A question from Skip Turner of Clearwater, FL: Why is it that professional athletes are now allowed to compete?
Mr. Lucas responds: Prior to 1952, there was only one kind of athlete allowed in the Olympic Games-- Winter and Summer. Then the Soviet Union and its 14 Communist allies entered the games. All their athletes were fully supported by their governments. None ever held a job. They trained 8 hours a day, 365 days a year. They won most of the gold, silver and bronze during the 1970s and 1980s. None of these athletes were amateur, and yet they were allowed to compete in the Olympics (which made athletes sign pledges that they were amateurs) because the communist athletes were not definable, they were not "pros" like Michael Jordan. It was unfair. So in 1986, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) changed its rule book (Olympic Charter) to allow "all the world's great male and female athletes to participate."
Laurie Singer of San Diego, CA
Some people suggest that the Olympics never had amateurs. But wouldn't you consider great atheletes such as Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell, Jesse Owens, Wilma Rudolph, and Dan Jansen, surburb amateur champions? Despite the cynical commentary we hear about the "Dream Team," don't these former Olympians have at least some counterparts in today's Atlanta Games?
Mr. Lucas responds: The athletes you mention had support from various sources. Harold Abrahams had a very very rich father. Eric Liddell was poor and financed 100% by the British Olympic Committee. Rudolph, Jansen, and Owens were very poor and had to receive their support from college scholarships and the USOC (United States Olympic Committee).
Michael S. Yakli of Painesville, Ohio In my opinion, the spirit of the olympic games as been lost because of the bombardment of corporations and corporate sponsorship. Athletes from the U. S., Russia and the other major European countries get corporations to sponsor them so they can train all year. In the communists state, the government is the sponsor. These athletes train all year while athletes in lesser known countries struggle to get a minimum amount of training in. These athletes do not stand a chance against the major countries. What about the country that only sends one athlete to the games. What chance does he have against the U. S. athletes?
Mr. Lucas responds: 195 nations support their Olympic athletes 100% financially, but the U.S. government gives zero money to its athletes. All the host cities in the world except those in the USA have supported their host Winter and Summer Olympics with billions of dollars. The U.S. government gave zero money to Atlanta for urban improvements and Olympic preparations. (It did however pick up $277 million of the $303 million tab for security.)
Atlanta is supported by $3 billion worth of corporate monies. In the year 2000, Sydney Australia will host the summer games. The Australian government has pledged "all the money that Sydney will need." Atlanta's ACOG received no such pledge.
European governments support their athletes; American business corporations support our Olympians. But the true test of an Olympian is how hard they train. Money cannot buy the drive and persistence of an Olympian.
Jessica Myer of New York, NY Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania, the Olympics was not a goal towards which we strived. I played lacrosse and field hockey, but even the swimmers were not out for Olympic gold. What is the Olympic spirit? I think of the games only as the thrill of watching unusual sports on TV, and getting bombarded with stories of personal triumph and the agony of defeat. What is the definition of Olympic spirit?
Mr. Lucas responds: The "perfect" Olympic spirit is a meld of international solidarity and friendship, fair play and sportsmanship at all times... even in stressful competition, and personal pride and love of one's nation.
Andrew Kovaleski of Milwaukee, WI
I would equate this discussion to what happens to parents as they grow older. Every generation sees many problems with the next generation, their ideals and habits. However, life goes on and things eventually simmer. Everything in our country is comercialized now, so why not the Olympics. It's to good of an opportunity for most businesses. Ultimately the consumers are responsible. If we didn't buy what they are selling, they would reconsider their campaigns. ___________________________________
Irene McPhee of Lahaina, Hawaii
The inclusion of professional athletes in the Olympic Games is patently unfair and a degradation of the spirit and goal of the Games. It should be common- sensically clear that a team who gets paid mega-millions to train to be the best will have an unfair advantage over amateur players who have to support themselves outside of training time. It appears to me that the Olympic Committee has buckled under to big money sports and corporate promotors, who have changed the focus of the games from a pursuit of pure athletic excellence to the positioning of their product as the sponsor of "the winner". Network broadcast coverage of the events, by its very nature,fits hand-in-glove with this commercial focus.
It would be refreshing to see a broader and more international coverage of the athletes and events in these Games.There are literally thousands of individual stories of personal triumph from all over the world. It gets boring seeing the same over-media exposed faces all the time.Why not cover some of the events that have no U.S. athletes competeing. Maybe it would inspire some young person watching to develop him/herself in that sport.
The Olympics should encourage the pursuit of athletic excellence for the love of the sport, not because you will get paid millions to do it. Unfortunately, the latter is the message that's being put forth.
Ronald Freimuth of Richardson TX The Olympics has become an INSANE, ELITIST institution. Hell, it cost $600 just to attend the opening ceremonies.
Olympic winners generally get lots of money to endorse overpriced products. While foreign employees of companies such as Nike get practically nothing.
The Olympics has little to do with the 'ordinary person', it's an event for the rich and privileged.
A friend in Atlanta had to find a new apartment, the managment of his first apartment was raising the rent for the year of the Olympics.
Ted Blakey of Rock Island, Illinois
Commercialism not a problem. The modern Olympics have always had mixed messages. Their arbitrary and unworkable split between amatuer and professio- nal is one example. They praise individual effort but raise nati- onal flags and add up national totals. So going for commercialism was probably the best way to rescue the Olympics from ignomy when, about 15 years ago, few cities or nations wanted it because it was bankrupting them. Ask Toronto if it would like to have the Olympics back.
Brenda Ridgway of North Pole Alaska
I believe that like most things there are two sides to this issue one good and one bad. Professional athletes have brought much needed money into the games and provided the ability for some to have better training. However, not all athletes benefit from this money, and certainly a lot of countries do not either. There was a definate loss of innocence when professional athletes were allowed to compete. I feel that in the long run professional athletes will do more damage then any of us could have predicted.
Jim Schroeder of Georgetown, Texas
Professional abilities brought forth to the olympics by professional athletes is not the problem. Professional athlete arrogance is the problem. Professional athletes have an attitude about themselves that is disgusting to me. This seems to be more with the younger athletes. They are just athletes , which the world could do without, but could we do without teachers, doctors, garbage collectors, dock workers or factory workers, I think not. These self appointed heros need to come down from their self contructed ivory towers.
Cass Gibson of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa
It's really great to watch the olympics on television, but it doesn't seem quite fair to the athletes who train and give up their livelyhood to become a medalist when a basketball player receives 120 mil. over a seven year period to play. Too many of the players are winning medals and being paid to do so in their everyday lives. It's becoming to commercialized and needs to get back to nonprofessional sports.
Judy Trott of Warrington, Pa.
In the name of fairness, I don't see that we really have any choice but allow the pros to compete. Although I would prefer to see all amateurs competing in the olympics, other countries send their professionals. It wouldn't be fair to pit pros against amateurs in such a worldly competition.
Now it's the influx of drugs or the accusation thereof. As far as I know, any athlete suspected of cheating in such a manner is immediately disqualified from further competition. However, comments by the press seem to indicate some are increasing their chances by taking drugs and apparently getting away with it. This is a true travesty against those who compete with a true and honest heart.
Even with all the controversy, the Olympic Games are wonderful and enjoyed by millions. I would hate to see the day when they no longer exist.
Michael Bradford of Canberra. Australia
The Olymics are now corrupted by the sponsors and will become more corrupted as the years go by, the games should return to what they were like, the viewers have a right to expect good clean sport..............
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