With the memory of the epic Gold Medal showdown between United States and Canada still fresh on everyone’s minds, the debate regarding professionals versus amateurs involvement in the Olympic Games has resurfaced. When the modern Olympics first began, French historian Pierre de Coubertin who’s widely regarded as the founder of the Olympic movement, envisioned the sporting events to involve only amateurs. He felt those who practiced a sport professionally were considered to have an unfair advantage over those who practiced it merely as a hobby.
While this ideal was easy to follow in the early 1900s, the line between professionals and amateurs have blurred over the years. With that gray area being harder to decipher, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has had to adapt to evolve with the times. In fact, over the past 20 years numerous Olympic sporting events have opened up, allowing professional athletes to compete for their country. Nowadays most competitions except boxing, baseball and soccer include professional athletes, but that may all change real soon.
The NHL’s current agreement to allow players to compete in the Winter Olympics which began at the 1988 Nagano Games ends after the Vancouver 2010 one. Prior to the 2010 Games, NHL commissioner has told media that the league might not send their players to the Sochi 2014 Games. He cites the strains of a mid-season interruption and the diminished benefits of sending pros to the Olympics overseas. But after the boffo ratings the Gold Medal match garnered on both sides of the border, the NHL might have to rethink their stance.
Wanna talk about benefits? Several NHL players involvement and amazing playing during the Olympics have elevated their profiles to an audience beyond hardcore NHL fans. US Goaltender Randy Miller and game-winning scorer Canadian Sidney Crosby have become household names due to their efforts. Having high profile athletes that transcend sport in any professional league can only reap rewards to the individual players and also the league.
While having such high profile athletes can be distracting to the other Olympians, they can also create for very lop-sided matches. When professional NBA players were allowed to compete at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, they caused a media firestorm when they arrived and were dubbed “The Dream Team”. Opponents became so enamored and starstruck by them, they often were seen asking for autographs before and after their match. Since the inclusion of NBA ballers, they have won every gold medal except for the 2004 Athens Games where they settled for the bronze and Argentina took the gold.
But not all sports which have allowed professionals have been affected to the same extent. Tennis at the Olympics, just like any Grand Slam includes all the major players around the world and feature high level competitive matches. But instead of battling for a cash prize, they rally for gold medals. In fact, they even get tournament points that count towards their respective ATP and WTA rankings which they use for tournament seeding and a year-end competition.
So why haven’t baseball and boxing followed suit and involved professionals? The Summer Olympics usually occur during July/August where the MLB season is into full-swing. Unlike the NHL, they were unwilling to interrupt their season and take a 17-day break- a two week break equates millions of dollars lost. Not only does loss of revenue a main concern for the league, but the possibility of athletes getting injured is also a factor.
With regards to boxing, the situation is quite different. Professional boxing and amateur boxing follow two completely set of rules and guidelines that make mixing the two types of athletes a bit more challenging.
Since Canada’s hockey Gold Medal, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) has come under fire for their medal bonus program. Under this initiative, gold medalists were awarded $20,000, silver with $15K and bronze with $10K. Some have argued that the professional hockey players shouldn’t be eligible since all but three of the Canadian hockey team make more than $3 million a year. The COC has stated that the funds were raised through private means and not via government subsidies. Personally, I don’t have a problem with them receiving the bonus. Whether they choose to splurge it on something for themselves or donate it to charity, it’s fine with me. By participating in the games, they run the risk of exposing themselves to a career-threatening injury that would prevent future earnings.
Some have argued that including pros defeats the ideals de Coubertin believed. While others, including myself, believe whether you get paid millions or peanuts, if you’re the best, why shouldn’t you be able to compete for your country. And in this day and age, determining what category athletes fall under is becoming next to impossible. Most amateur athletes nowadays receive swag, stipends, appearance fees and other sorts of compensation for their efforts. Technically, whether you get paid $5 or $10 million, you’re a professional in my eyes. It seems like a lifetime ago, when 1912 Olympic champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics. Thankfully, his medals were restored by the IOC in 1983.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Should professionals be allowed to participate in the Olympics? Vote in the poll below and weigh in with your comments.