Bring Back the Olympic Amateurs!

It makes the Olympic go 'round. Illustration by Rik Sansone (
It makes the Olympic go 'round. Illustration by Rik Sansone (
It makes the Olympics go ’round. Illustration by: Rik Sansone (

To the late Andy Rooney: move over. With apologies to his wit and knowledge, I’m about to engage in a little sports rant. Call me an elitist, call me a naive dreamer, but I’m almost ready to return to the autocratic days of Avery Brundage, the American president of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972.

This year’s Olympic uniforms for the Americans remind me of NASCAR jumpsuits — and every NBC announcement emphasizing how many medals we have won. Money and nationalism have taken over the Olympics, corrupting the games beyond recognition of their lofty ideal. Here is the creed of the games:

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The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Square that creed with how you think Shaun White felt when the ESPN commenter flatly said, “He choked.” White had just picked himself up after a bad fall and managed to come in fourth. Where is the spirit of the Olympics: “not to win but take part”?

Yes, during the Cold War, we Americans regarded Russia as Enemy Number One. I celebrated as much as anyone when, in 1980, the Americans beat the Russians in the “Miracle on Ice.” Our hockey team was the underdog, and what made their victory doubly sweet was that it was made up of amateurs. A few nights later, the Russian team captain brought the Americans oxygen during a break, enabling them to beat the Hungarians and capture the gold. To me, the Russian captain embodied the true Olympian spirit. A few nights ago, I heard an announcer describe the then-upcoming hockey match with Russia, at the games in Sochi, as a “war” critical to each country’s “national honor.”  Really? The Berlin wall came down in 1989. We never fought a real war with Russia. We were allies in World War II, but facts don’t sell on Madison Avenue. What happened to “the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle?” I’ll tell you what happened. It doesn’t sell shoes.

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As a kid, I loved the legend that during the original Olympics, all conflicts among the participating city-states were postponed until the games were finished. This cessation of hostilities was known as the Olympic truce.

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A very Avery look. Via /

The Games in the Brundage era were played by amateurs; professional athletes were not allowed. Yes, it led to some heartbreaking results: Jim Thorpe was stripped of two gold medals because he played semipro baseball in 1912. Yet the Olympics continued to be the preeminent goal of most of the world’s athletes.

Times have changed, and it may be hard for young viewers to imagine, but all the sponsorships, advertisements and marketing hoopla that are a standard part of the big-dollar contemporary games were not so long ago thought to insult the Olympic spirit. The Olympics were supposed to be about love of sport, not money. Brundage was unbendable on the “amateur code.” In a 1955 speech, he said:

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We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the Games from being used by individuals, organizations or nations for ulterior motives.

But money always finds a way. Once Brundage was gone, the floodgates opened. The IOC was frothing at the bit to turn the Olympics into a bottomless goldmine. They were convinced that the best way to bring in viewers and sponsors was to allow the most famous athletes in the world to compete, which meant that professionals could compete.

By then, most folks thought athletes from the Eastern Bloc nations had an unfair advantage, anyway: they were de facto pros already, supported almost completely by their governments. By the end of the ’80s, the move toward professionalizing the Olympics gained a head of steam. When the dream team of National Basketball Association players from the U.S. competed in and won the gold in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the transformation was complete.

My halfhearted and unrealistic call to bring back the amateurs raises a personal conflict. I wholeheartedly believe something must be done to compensate college athletes. Universities make enormous amounts of money from athletics; players are left with bad backs, blown-out knees, displaced shoulders and concussed brains. At the very least, these young people deserve a real education, full benefits and the same substantial monthly stipend for the tackle as for the quarterback. I think athletes who remain in school and get a degree should receive some sort of subsidized health and disability benefits from the university to cover the injuries incurred while they earned millions for their schools. In my personal experience, I don’t know of a single college football player who has not sustained some sort of permanent injury that affected them for the rest of their life.

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Sorry—I got distracted by an issue dear to me. Now back to the Olympics. In my heart, I know there’s no going back to amateur athletes—the money is too big and the spectacle too hypnotic. Nor do I blame the athletes. They are pulled away from their home and friends at early ages to become gladiators. Whether the athlete is an ice skater, gymnast, skier or tennis player, our society identifies them early and whisks them off. I certainly can’t blame them for hoping for a little financial reward during the few years they compete. They, too, will have surgical and emotional scars. They deserve a portion of the money made on their celebrity.

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But can’t we make the Olympic Games a little special, a little unique, something more about the athletes, more about competition and participation, less about nationalism and materialism? How about no national uniforms after the ceremonial parade? How about no flags or national anthems on the podium? How about maybe no constant reminders of the medal count? I admit I get a little teary when they play our national anthem, but I’ll happily give up a few tears to bring back the original spirit of the Games.

Thanks, Andy Rooney, for letting me borrow your soapbox.