Time, TV Redrawing Olympic Roster
BARCELONA, SPAIN — BEFORE the Olympics even began here, a roving ambassador for archery "worked" the press center, handing out pens shaped like small arrows. The message to reporters: Come and see archery's new and improved show - a high-tension, head-to-head shootout for the medals.
In sports, as in politics, it pays to "press the flesh," especially at this critical time when decisions are soon to be made on the makeup of the Olympics next century.
Jim Easton, president of FITA, the international archery federation, says of Barcelona, "This is the Olympics where, if we have something interesting and exciting, it's time to show it."
At the Olympic congress in Paris in 1994, the program commission of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supposed to submit a plan to limit the Games to 10,000 athletes. The mandate goes beyond just keeping a lid on the growing numbers, though. It involves assessing what sports can pull their own weight, or achieve a sufficient level of popularity to enhance the marketability of the Olympics.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC president, has said that after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta "there will have to be a revolution and a scrapping of all the sports that only survive today because of the Olympics.... [M]any sports seem to be surviving artificially."
Tradition isn't enough anymore, which is why the modern pentathlon may disappear after 1996, even though the event was conceived by modern Olympic founder Pierre de Coubertin. This combination of shooting, swimming, running, horseback riding, and fencing was intended as a friendly competition among soldiers, but is anachronistic by today's standards.
Modern pentathlon could give way to triathlons, the running-swimming-cycling hybrid that has caught on in the past decade.
Equestrian events, Greco-Roman wrestling, and fencing are also rumored to be on the way out.
BUT to handle the problem of "gigantism," Olympic officials can't simply replace one sport or event for another. Some serious pruning may be necessary, since more countries continue to send athletes each year. It is up to 168 here and will only grow larger in '96, when many of the former Soviet republics, competing under the Unified Team banner here, will send separate teams.
The IOC has reportedly considered several "weight-watching" proposals, including further limiting entries and raising entry standards as well as dropping sports.
"Sports that have been threatened with extinction, like rowing, equestrian, and weight lifting have lobbied heavily for their survival," says David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian. "Critics of the IOC contend that its decisions are being guided more by hunger for television revenues than by the concerns of athletes."
The importance of television to the Olympics cannot be underestimated: The sale of TV rights accounted for the largest share (35 percent) of operating revenues in Barcelona. NBC paid $401 million to televise 16 days of competition here, nearly double what ABC paid for the '84 Los Angeles Games.
Asked why archery had changed its format, federation president Easton says, "Let's just say it was a suggestion from the IOC that we do something to make our sport more modern and television friendly."
What archery has done, Easton says, is to turn its final rounds from a marathon into a 100-meter dash. Like other sports, it has also worked with television folks on making archery a better "view." One means of achieving this, which NBC has used, is to simultaneously show the archer and, in an inset picture, the target.
Rowing has not tinkered with its format, nor does it have as wide an international membership as other present or would-be Olympic sports. But it has other advantages: It is virtually drug-free because of its pioneering, year-round drug testing; it offers equal opportunities for men and women; it was one of the founding Olympic sports; and it projects a nonviolent image.
If officials decided to disarm the Olympics, archery and shooting could be in jeopardy.
Mr. Easton realizes that Olympic officials might be tempted to replace archery with golf, for example, since the TV rights package would be worth more.
"Our point is, we can have both," he says, adding that archery has deep roots in the Games. "We're willing to cut down the number of athletes who come to the Games, ... fixing on a set number so that we don't clog up the Olympic Village. I hate to think we've got to kick some old-time sports out just to bring the new ones in. I think there's a way to do both."
Richard Pound, an IOC official from Canada, says that one solution might be to rotate some sports.
Women's softball comes on board in 1996 (see related story), and other sports lining up at the Olympic gate include bowling, roller skating, golf, taekwondo, and water skiing.
"We clearly have a huge problem," Olympic program chairman Philippe Chatrier has said. How it will be resolved should provide enough suspense, politicking, and salesmanship to overcome any between-Olympics lull.