Amateur night is long over at the Olympics

It's a great feeling," US Olympic men's basketball coach Rudy Tomjanovich was musing here the other day, "being there for our country."

But is it, really, for 12 high-priced NBA stars? After all, they are athletes who already are way over the top in talent, earthly reward, and adulation received. Somehow the idea of them giving it their physical and emotional all in order to stand on the podium and receive medals seems a bit of a disconnect.

Of course, the men's basketball competition is a disconnect itself. That's because the US record in the Olympics since 1936 is 101-2, good for winning 11 of the 13 gold medals presented. For the red, white, and whew to lose is about as possible as us forgetting the words to "Happy Birthday."

When someone suggests that the time will come when the Americans will lose the gold again, Tomjanovich interrupts with a laugh, "I hope it ain't this year." Not to fret. Rudy T, Houston Rockets coach in real life, insists that teams like Italy and Lithuania might be very good. That foray into nonsense doesn't come close to passing the giggle test.

Rather, what does give legitimate pause is whether professionalism, which has been officially allowed in the Olympics since 1988, is good or bad. Truth is the Olympics never have been simply about draping an olive wreath around the necks of the winners.

It's a hot debate. In their hearts, most feel that amateurism and the Olympics should go together like hand in glove. In actuality, the fit has never been right.

What many do, past and present, is laud an ideal called amateurism. Like many ideals, it falls short of its definition. Jim Craig, goalie for the storied 1980 gold-medal-winning US hockey team, laments the passing of amateurism: "It's unfortunate because in the past it really was about the Olympic athlete and the Games. Now it's more about sponsorship and people who are high profile."

Craig is correct only in his dreams.

But before we unmercifully trash the Olympic pros competing in the likes of hoops, hockey, and track and field, and before we lambaste corporate sponsorship, remember that the 1976 Games in Montreal lost about $1 billion. In 1984, sponsorship revenues kicked in $42 million; at the last summer Olympics (1996 in Atlanta), such revenues were $750 million. In many ways, this is what has enabled the Games to continue to strut and amaze on the world stage every four years.

In the ancient Games, there was no distinction made between professionals and amateurs. All were simply called athletes. Since the first Games in 776 BC, Olympic victors were rewarded with valuable metals and oxen and free meals at city hall. It wasn't until the 1800s that the concept of "amateur" surfaced. It would have been foreign to the Greeks of eons past.

The modern Games were restarted in 1896 under the whip of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had what seemed a simple and laudatory idea: an international competition among amateur athletes to promote friendly relations among nations.

Immediately one nation's idea of amateurism was another's idea of professionalism. Accusations flew across the waters. Amateurism gave way to shamateurism. In the mid-'90s, the president of the English Rugby Football Union told Reuters news agency, "I believe that the word 'amateurism' has become an anachronism."

Amateurism was a lovely theory that crashed on the shores of reality.

It's good that it did. Amateurism is unenforceable. When nations of ill will want to win at all costs, amateurism is the first casualty. Craig persists in the notion that "winning isn't the reason the Olympics exist." He's right again - in his dreams.

It makes sense for the Olympics to be contested among the best athletes without regard to definition. That they are able to turn their talents into cash crops doesn't make their skills less admirable.

Trying to enforce amateur rules has become all but impossible for another body, the NCAA, which governs collegiate athletics. Plus it is easy to make the case that athletic scholarships to attend universities are cash payments in themselves, therefore arrows to the heart of amateurism.

US coach Tomjanovich says "competing and winning" is splendid. In fairness, so is standing on a medal stand, whether an athlete is a pro or an amateur.

Best is best. Period.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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