For the Olympics, Some `Peace Dividend' Reforms

THE end of the cold war has yielded a surprise peace dividend - an Olympics in which the athletes came first and national rivalries came second. No nation felt called upon to boycott the games. The story of the Olympic medal count was subordinated to stories of personal achievement.

It is enough to make us optimistic about the 1996 summer Olympic games in Atlanta. But it is also the moment to press on with reforms that would have been impossible prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, when all that seemed to matter to most Americans was the number of Olympic medals our athletes won.

Minimum age requirements. Gymnastics - where 15- and 16-year-old girls often have puberty delayed because of the strains of training and constant dieting - provides the most conspicuous example of youngsters being exploited. One doesn't have to be a feminist to be horrified at the spectacle of our male coaches towering over their prots, controlling their every movement, pushing them in and out of the television limelight. The remarks of the trainer for the United States Gymnastics Federation say it all: "If they grow too tall or gain weight ... they may not make it."

Raising to 18 the minimum age at which an American athlete could compete in the Olympics would not fully end the kind of abuse epitomized by women's gymnastics, but it would be a step in the right direction. It would give those who compete a chance to make decisions when they are more mature, and it would remove some of the incentive to begin coaching youngsters at six or seven.

A major-league sports ban. In the past nothing was more frustrating than seeing our Olympic men's basketball teams, in essence a collection of college all stars, go down to defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia. Here was a game that we had invented, that was played on every city playground, and we were losing at it.

Our basketball opponents had the advantage of being in their physical primes and of playing for teams so heavily subsidized by their countries that they were basically touring pros. How we longed to make them see what our pros could do! We have, and the results have not been much fun for anybody despite the celebrity of the American "Dream Team."

At the major-league level pro sports in America are different from anywhere else. Calling on players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to help us win at basketball is like bringing in Nolan Ryan and Bobby Bonds to help us beat Cuba in baseball. It's overkill. Better to rely on our college "kids" (still subsidized amateurs) and keep the way we compete in proportion.

A THREE event limit. Especially in sports such as swimming and track, there is a tendency for athletes to compete in multiple events as well as relays. The result is that the opportunities to make Olympic teams are narrowed, and coaches tend to concentrate on a limited group of athletes rather than develop team depth. Imposing a three-event limit would change this focus. Coaches would have to reach out to more athletes, and the opportunity to represent America at the Olympics would be made more available . A larger Olympic team, representing more communities and schools, could benefit sports programs across the country.

Olympic family "scholarships." There already exists an "Olympic Family Program" that AT&T and Olson Travelworld participate in. It has made cheaper stays in Barcelona possible for the families of Olympic athletes. But we need a program that provides "scholarships" for the families of Olympic athletes with limited incomes.

A means test, like the kind used to award college scholarships, would be the surest way to determine the amount of an Olympic family "scholarship." We should not continue a system in which our rich athletes are able to have their families travel first class and our poor athletes must leave their families at home or else ask their communities and friends to raise money for them, as if they were charity cases.

Part of the money for Olympic family "scholarships" could come from taking a percentage - a tithe for example - from the fees any athlete is paid for advertisements that run during the Olympics. The rest could come from the US Olympic Committee.

Might such reforms cost us a medal or two in future Olympics? Possibly. But the tradeoffs are worth it, and there is a good chance that other countries would imitate our example rather than exploit it.

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