Saturday, February 25

Professionals in the Olympics

I've been opposed to the recent trend toward more and more professional athletes in the Olympics. I suppose partly it's because my sports - nordic skiing and biathlon - aren't exactly ones you'll see millionaire professionals in North America. But more importantly, I believe the Summer Games' basketball so-called "Dream Team" was a cynical brazen ploy to win at all costs - sportsmanship and fair play be damned. Part of what makes the Olympic Games so exciting is that the competitors are more human, not some millionaire prima-donna pro sorts star. Plus, the inclusion of professional athletes in the Olympics heavily favors large, wealthy nations who have large pro sports leagues. It's a structure that shuts out talented athletes from nations who are too small or too poor to be able to support full-time professional athletes.

However. I've caught several of this year's Olympic hockey games and have been impressed. I'm not a hockey fan. I've been to exactly one hockey game ever (a minor league Portland Winterhawks game). But as I watched the Olympic hockey tournament, I wonder if professionals in the Olympics isn't entirely a bad thing. Maybe it's because the games I've seen have all been exciting, well-played and competitive - nothing like the Summer Games professional team blowouts. The difference, I think, is that there are so many strong hockey players and leagues in so many nations. True, it still favors large wealthy nations, but there are so many teams in the tournament that have access to so many professional players that it was at least a real competition between many good teams instead of one or two teams full of professional ringers against a field of amateurs.

Am I convinced that professional athletes belong in the Olympics? Definitely not. But after watching this year's tournament, I'm willing to concede there might be room for them among the amateurs.


  1. What Summer Games were you watching? The US was inevitably going to fall in basketball, and to be honest, I enjoyed it when they did. And it's not like the "amateurs" in the Olympics are pure, innocent, or anything like me. Professionals don't exactly exacerbate the rich/poor countries have better equipment, better training, and the ability to focus more on athletes.

    I didn't like the Dream Team at all, but in retrospect, I don't think the games are less professional now than they were before.

  2. Which games? Specifically I was referring to the various summer games in the 90's, but I think the point still stands even when the "Dream Team" lost. They lost not because of a lack of talent, but rather a lack of desire and effort. They acted like they deserved to win just by showing up and I was disgusted at their attitude. I, too, was pleased to see that they lost. But more importantly, their attitude is a big part of why I dislike the presence of professionals in the Olympics.

    There is a big difference between a skiier or skater who lives off of endorsements and sponsorships while they compete and an NBA multimillionaire. I have no problem with the former, even though they are technically a "professional." The latter is what I am talking about. The Games are more and more dominated by the latter type of professional every four years, and I find precious little benefit coming out of it. That's why I was so surprised at how different the hockey games were - for the first time I saw an Olympic competition dominated by professionals that didn't appear to have the negative aspects that so bother me.

  3. I disagree with your assessment of basketball in Athens. Basketball has devolved in this country to terrible new lows. We simply don't play the game as well as it's played in the rest of the world--we don't bother with play away from the ball, and we have no mid-range shooters anywhere in the USA. Everything is about either taking a 3 or penetrating. Other nations have better game.

    The story, therefore, of the rest of the world catch up up to (and passing) the US was a wonderful story. I think it's an argument in favor or professionals.

    What I like best about the Olympics is the chance to watch the very best in the world do what they do. I don't want there to be restrictions on that "very best." I have never (and will never) watch sports because of the attitude of the athletes.

    Helluva Sweden/Finland final today. Great hockey.

  4. I'd actually argue that the Dream Team raised the visibility of Olympic basketball, and by doing so, raised the level of international committment. (I'd also argue that the first Dream Team did a better job of getting the very best NBA players, while subsequent years have not. Which goes to Greg's point about desire and effort.)

    And I'm not altogether convinced about the rich-poor dichotomy. It seems like every time they show a Chinese athlete, NBC is pointing out how they've been living in an isolated training camp for 14 years. The Communist Bloc countries had nowhere near the wealth of the West, but chose to allocate scarce resources to big, successful nationalized programs.

    I appreciate that China and Romania are not exactly Kuala Lampur, but I think how you spend the money you have is just as interesting a question as how much of it there is.

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