Sarajevo, Yugoslavia — Before the first puck was dropped at the Winter Olympics here, five hockey players (two Canadians, two Italians, and one Austrian) were assessed the steepest penalty imaginable - a trip out the door.
Each had played in at least one National Hockey League game. That made them pros in some eyes, but not in others - depending upon how one interpreted the rules. The only interpretation that counts, though, is that of the International Olympic Committee, which eventually decreed that such players were ineligible.
Essentially, the players were guinea pigs in a longstanding debate mired in semantic and administrative quicksand. Rapid decisions are not the IOC's forte, however, so by the time it acted less than 24 hours before the opening game, a handful of disheartened athletes had unwittingly wasted much time and effort.
US and Canadian officials had actually been jousting over the issue for weeks - ever since the Canadians said they planned to use some players whose eligibility the Americans questioned.
One normally wouldn't expect these neighbors to be at odds, but this wasn't a normal situation. The road to an Olympic medal passed through the other guy's team - and in the first round at that. (Canada won the game Tuesday, 4-2)
US officials felt the rules barred any player who had signed an NHL contract. But Canada said a player remained amateur until he appeared in 11 NHL games, a position reputedly held by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF).
Those are indeed different interpretations, ones that arrived here like participants in the old TV show ''To Tell the Truth.'' Will the real rule please stand up.
Confused athletes, coaches, and reporters all waited anxiously until Monday night, when the IOC's eligibility committee finally got around to ruling. The first announcement was that any players who had so much as signed professional, specifically NHL, contracts must go. The Canadians went along with this to the point of dropping the two players on their squad who had actually appeared in NHL games, but in an apparent compromise they kept the others whose eligibility had been questioned, including goaltender Mario Gosselin, who has signed, but not played, with the Quebec Nordiques.
As always, once the eligibility issue arose it opened an immense can of worms.
How, the committee was asked, could it ban only NHL pros when players with backgrounds in other skate-for-pay leagues were allowed to compete? Weren't those collecting salaries in Europe or suiting up for Central or American Hockey League clubs just as much professional?
The IOC said it was following the IIHF's guidelines, which label only NHL players professionals. The committee also said Canada's idea of a 10-game NHL limit was at this point only a recommendation that has not been adopted.
The gnawing fact remains, however, that some professionals will be competing in Sarajevo and others won't. Whither justice? And what about the question of state-subsidized, full-time athletes from the Soviet Union and elsewhere?
Asked if he was disappointed in the hockey ruling, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch replied, ''Yes and no. Since the beginning of the Olympics, we have faced this problem (eligibility). The IOC must do its best to give all athletes, who come from countries where sports are organized quite differently, the right to compete. We are going step by step and bit by bit in this direction, but I would like to go faster.''
He would stop short, though, of including out-and-out professionals. As he put it: ''The Olympics must be open to all athletes except those who support themselves exclusively through sports.''
Just where that places state-supported athletes is anybody's guess, since essentially they are full-time sportsmen and sportswomen - as some might say certain Olympians from other countries, including the United States, are also. The US women's volleyball team, for example, trains for 11 months of the year. And it's well established that many top stars in sports like skiing and track and field do little else but train and compete - and are well compensated one way or another.
The IOC at least has come to its senses in recent years, discarding the utopian concept of amateurism it once held.
The Olympic charter still doesn't permit athletes to receive direct financial rewards for their efforts, but national committees may now assume responsibility for the support of athletes so that they are ''not placed at a social or material disadvantage'' in preparing for the Games.
The rules regarding professionalism in many cases are left up to the appropriate sports governing bodies, but eligibility rules are stricter in some sports than others, causing abundant inconsistencies. Somewhere down the line, maybe the ultimate solution to the hypocrisy associated with eligibility rulings will be the open Olympics that Samaranch opposes. But offer no prize money. Then if the pros still want to compete for the simple love of sport, the decision would be theirs.