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Sochi Olympics: The Professional versus Amateur Debate Rages On

The Olympic Games are Big Business. Capital B, capital B.

A Little History

In 1972 Austrian skier Karl Schranz was excluded from the Winter Olympics for receiving money from sponsors. Avery Brundage, IOC President at the time, was known to be steadfast in his committment to protecting the "amateur" status of the games and his outspoken opinions on the matter had resulted in several public relations disasters. When he attempted to exclude 40 other 'professional' athletes that same year, his IOC colleagues refused to endorse his plan and he ended up retiring later that year. The ban against earning money from endorsements and outright pay for play was progressively relaxed and each Olympic sport's governing body was encouraged to make its own rules. This was the same year that the word 'amateur' disappeared from the Olympic Charter.

Except for boxing and wrestling, where safety concerns are cited, the Olympic amateur regulations were pretty much abandoned by the 1990s. In 1988 professional tennis players were permitted to compete in the games and, of course, the most publicly remembered event happened in 1992 when the American "Dream Team" composed of NBA stars trounced all comers. It wasn't until the 1998 games when, perhaps not so coincidentally, the first Women's Hockey teams competed, that the NHL allowed its players to compete for their home countries. At the 1998 and 2002 Winter Games, to accommodate the NHL's schedule, the first rounds were played without the top tier teams (Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States). This proved difficult to manage and starting in 2006 all teams played in all rounds.

It was the personal belief of IOC founder, Pierre de Coubertin, formed from a rather aristocratic upbringing, which gave rise to the stringency of the amateur and professional distinctions at the Olympic games. In de Couberton's rarefied world, composed of "gentlemen" in the old-school context, practice and training were considered to be a form of cheating. It seemed the issue was less who earned money from their athletic skill, but who had the most natural form of it. In today's world a nearly polar opposite ethos is in effect and the most respected athletes seem to be those who make a practice of training themselves into being better at their sport. In fact, one hears some very strange stories of this or that athlete undertaking a program of fitness which would seem positively monstrous to the establishment of that era.

For all the Gary Bettman haters, it will not improve your mood to know that it was his efforts to get the NBA players into the games in 1992 (he was then Vice President of the NBA and hat yet to migrate to the NHL on the heels of the Eagleson debacle which ousted John Ziegler from the NHL Presidency) which resulted in the NHL's participation four years later when he was in charge. He had seen the dramatic rise in awareness, which translates to income, for the sport of basketball and the NBA in general and was anxious to repeat the effects for hockey and the NHL. It is a phenomenon best explained by psychologists and anthropologists but the basic fact is that an athlete who competes under the auspices of his country's flag and banner earns a special place in the hearts of that country's citizens. Perhaps, in a convoluted way, this is a trickle effect of de Coubertin's own philosophy, that there was something grand and good in the character of an athlete, something that earns respect and inspires others. In modern times this translates to ticket and jersey sales, television audience and broadcasting rights. Bettman is no fool.

To his credit, Bettman was able to do what the Canadian hockey establishment had been trying, unsuccessfully, to do since the late 1950s. It had heated to such a degree, despite a few small progressive steps, that by the late 1960s Canada refused to participate in international hockey competition. They cited a displeasure with the murkiness of the "amateur" status, particularly as it related to Russian hockey players who were all listed as amateurs despite being "sponsored" to play hockey outside of their listed status' as, primarily, students and soldiers. On the international scene this was seen as a shade of "sour grapes" by Canada as Russia had taken over the international hockey scene and dominated it as Canada had done previously.

To the many Canadians who believe Bettman is something akin to the antichrist, it is a fact that Canada has re-engaged with the international hockey scene largely due to Gary Bettman's efforts with the NHL and the Olympics. 

The Ongoing Debate

Apparently Avery Brundage's outspoken and vehmently espoused opinions on amateurs versus professionals still has supporters. Even a quick and cursory jaunt around the internet will prove that there are still many, if the percentages of those posting holds true across the general population, who believe the Olympic games shoud be a conetst of only amateur athletes. Some of it seems to be the usual variety of soci-economic jealousy that comes in the form of "why should these spoiled, crybaby millionaire athletes get to ..." and some of it seems to be more of the de Coubertin school and comes in the form of "those guys don't do it for a love of the sport ...". It is the very same vitriol that boils to the surface when a labour dispute arises. de Coubertin was right in one sense; when money becomes involved, across all lines and borders, it changes things. The question is ... for whom.

Does a hockey player love the game less when he gets his first paycheque? Does he become less noble and inspiring? Is he less of an athlete? Do the very same qualities that make us love him when he's an amateur become stilted or stunted when he moves from the 1983 Volskwagon to the 2013 Mercedes? Of course not. People are not responding to a change in him, they are responding to the lack of a corresponding change in themselves. We are a society that measures ourselves by the trinkets and toys we are able to afford, by the number of bathrooms we have and the weight of the watches on our wrists. It's not only easier, it's nearly de rigueur to cheer for the underdog. In our world the underdog is not only the fellow who is not winning, he is the also the fellow with fewer bathrooms and a cheaper wristwatch. And history has proven, in virtually every facet of human existence, that we only like the underdog as long as he's the underdog.

It was okay when the Czechs won their first world championship, but the second one brought more anti-fans than new ones. Switzerland, an up and coming hockey power, was lauded when they almost beat the Canadians at the last Olympics, slathered with kudos of the "fiesty" and "plucky" variety - even by Canadians. If they do it again, the response will be much less positive and saluatory, trust me.

Of course, as human history also tells us, we sometimes grow to hate the monsters we create. The ONLY reason that sports even have a professional aspect is that the public wants one. We want to be able to watch baseball and basketball, football and hockey, soccer and golf. To be able to watch these sports, we need athletes to play them. In order for those athletes to play them, they need an income, if for nothing else to feed themselves. To get an income, the sport needs to be organized. Once it gets organized, it generates profit. You see where this is going, right? Once there's profit, the players, because we live in a modern world where sweatshops are seen as bad things, want a stake in it. They're not making millions because they're greedy, they're making millions because there are millions on the table and that's their proper share.

Do Jonathon Toews or Sidney Crosby (and all those like them) display and embody the character of those old-school, aristocratic athetes? I would say they do, in a modern context. They work hard, keep their bodies clean of substances and fit, give back to the communities that support them, provide good role model qualities and display the sorts of personality traits we deem valuable. They generally play clean and fair inside of the rules of the game, they are polite, as humble as they can be with the world proclaiming their greatness on a daily basis and, maybe most importantly, they don't trash talk each other, their teams or their league. Even in the middle of the last lockout Crosby mixed and minced his words carefully and nothing came out of his mouth that could be considered disrespectful to his sport or his league.

The only thing different from a Sidney Crosby who plays for free and one who plays for money is, in fact, the money. Money has no moral substance. It has no character and no personality. It wants nothing and has no power in its inert, natural form. We're the ones who imbue it with qualities, negative and positive. If it's dirty, we're the ones who made it that way.

I Hate to Break it to You, but the Olympics are Big Business

Big Business. Two capital Bs. Money, money, money. We have such a complex relationship with money that it muddies every spot of water it touches. Billions and billions of dollars will be spent and earned, change hands and migrate countries during the Olympics. It boggles the mind, really, the sheer financial weight the thing throws around is staggering. I won't go into the boring details of who gets what and how the immense financial pot gets disbursed but suffice to say that broadcasting companies, sponsors who place ads, leagues who sell player inspired merchandise and companies who manufacture mementos and souveniers make a great deal of money.

These are not the games of ancient Greece where spectators arrived on foot with a packed lunch and left the same way, no richer or poorer in the pocketbook. The enrichment was supposed to come from the spectacle itself. The athletic prowess on display, the feats of seemingly inhuman physical effort. Those were the takeaways. Seeing the side of humanity which excels in games and sports of skill. Were those ancient athletes paid? Of course they were, usually by the armies from which they came. If not the armies, by the society itself. None of them came emaciated, one presumes. They ate somehow. Feats of nearly inhuman athletic skill don't happen on an empty stomach or arise from the atrophied muscles that characterize the poor and unfed.

Somewhere, somehow, money became dirty. Taking it sullied one's soul and rendered one's character less than honorable. As ancient as that belief might be, it is no more true today than it was when de Coubertin was in an English boarding school learning the meaning of "gentlemen". One presumes his parents paid money for him to attend that school to learn money was dirty. You can see the obvious inconsistencies with the whole issue.

Fact is, the spectacle is the same as it was in ancient Greece. The best athletes in the world still compete and we are still able to witness the very best physical specimens of our race engaged in the sports we have come to love. It is not the greediness or "dirtiness" of the athletes that caused the problem ... it was our love of watching them. The Olympics, in a strange way, are the very reason why sports is such a big business and why the athletes earn such large amounts of money.

I suspect the same people who think only amateurs should be in the Olympic games are the same ones who think the players ought to suck it up and take what they can get when labour disputes arise. No one likes an underdog with teeth. But we could not go on forever earning money by parading the dog around town on a leash without the dog, at least, demanding a better bowl of food or a softer bed.

The bottom line is simple: if you want to see the very best athletes in the world compete, then you need to accept those who do it as a profession. If you want only the second tier, those not good enough to be professionals, then only amateurs should be allowed. But is that not a direct and flagrant disregard for what the games really are all about? They're about the best athletes, not the best unpaid athletes. Back when they were invented there was no distinction, merely that those most skilled participate. In fact, it was a military display, in its very beginnings. The issues of amateur and professional would have been impossible to distinguish or quantify. It was only in their modern incarnation, when such social dinosaurs as the aristocratic de Coubertin were in charge of determining what was honorable and just, that the issue of money and payment even became an issue.

Did we want them to play for free so we might be entertained? The last people to do that did so just before their civilization fell under its own hubris. In some places that's called slavery. Certainly it would qualify in today's new age of social equity and awareness under the term exploitation.

The Olympic games created the desire in us to have such displays and contests on a regular basis. In turn, we created the professional athlete. Not letting those same athletes compete or disparaging the fact of it is the very height of hyprocrisy.