The Olympics have been hailed as the ultimate amateur athletic competition, but is that really the case anymore? Many sports are now allowing professional athletes to compete. Is this a positive movement, or will it lead to the downfall of the Games? Will athletes receive the glory of past medalists, or will they be considered merely overpaid competitors who do anything to win? As rumors of cheating and drug use begin to overwhelm many sports, will it overtake the Olympics as well?
I would like to spark a discussion of these and other issues pertinent to the overall face of the Olympics. As the Games returns, physically at least, to its roots, will it earn the respect and place of honor it once held?
Amateur or Professional?
In 1980, the US Men’s Ice Hockey team won the gold medal in true Olympic style – a team of amateur athletes overcame unbelievable odds and defeated the best team in the world. In 1992, the US Men’s Basketball team, hailed as the “Dream Team” due to the new rules allowing professional players to compete, slaughtered the competition by a combined score of 938 to 588. Two gold medals, two very different competitions.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) originally intended for the Olympics to be open only to amateurs. This meant that athletes could not earn any money from anything related to sports. This rule has caused confusion over the years, as questions as to whether athletes could be reimbursed for travel expenses and endorsements, or even employed as coaches, have never been satisfactorily addressed. In the early 1980’s, the IOC asked each sport’s international federation to determine eligibility in its own sport. Over the next few years, nearly all events became open, with no distinction between amateurs and professionals.
In 1912, Jim Thorpe won two gold medals, in the decathlon and pentathlon. In 1913, he was stripped of the medals because it was learned that he was paid to play minor league baseball in 1910. He was declared a professional athlete and therefore ineligible for the Olympics. He claimed that he did not know at the time that he was doing anything wrong. The silver medalist agreed that he won fairly, refusing to claim the medals he won.
This confusion is now a thing of the past, as each sport’s federation has clearly stated rules and regulations. Thorpe would be allowed to compete in any track event today.
In many countries, even world-class athletes have trouble making a living in less well-known sports. Allowing competitors to accept prize money, endorsements, and reimbursements for travel and expenses helps to ensure that it is not just the wealthy who can afford to train and compete to the best of their ability. At the same time, does it hurt the image of the Olympics to allow athletes making millions of dollars in professional basketball and ice hockey leagues to compete? Or should they be allowed simply because they are the best in their sport, and the Olympics should be a place to showcase their talent?
In 2002, the world was shocked to learn that a judge was pressured to inflate the scores of a Russian pairs team in order to assure their gold, unveiling corruption high in ice skating’s international ranks, and leading to accusations of other predetermined results. Since then, the judging system in international competitions has been changed, and the sport’s federation is looking for a way to prevent further controversy.
Speed skaters, swimmers, and track stars are constantly being accused of using illegal substances to improve their results. In 2002, two cross-country skiers were stripped of their golds after they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Many athletes fail tests during non-Olympic years and are still allowed to compete in the Games if they pass all the tests administered during the competition. The list of banned substances continues to grow, as athletes look for undetectable methods of improving their performance.
In recent years, many Chinese swimmers broke world records by unprecedented amounts. In 2000, world record holder Wu Yanyan was banned for testing positive for a stimulant. Seven swimmers tested positive for steroids at the Asian Games in 1994. Four other swimmers were banned in 1998. Given these test results, many question the world records. We may never know if they are legitimate.
It is frustrating to clean athletes that new records are almost always questioned. Athletes who substantially beat a previous record seem to be considered guilty rather than be given the benefit of the doubt that their talent and training combined with the adrenaline of competition pushed them to new heights in their sport.
Can the Olympics get past the controversy and be seen as a pure, exciting competition as it returns to London?