Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2010

This Ring Proudly Sponsored By…

This evening the games of the XXI Winter Olympiad come to a close. Assuming IOC President Jacques Rogge’s closing remarks follow tradition, toward the end of them he will “call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now in Sochi to celebrate the games of the twenty-second Winter Olympiad.” Just because something has become ritualistic does not mean that it cannot have great meaning. But sometimes, it’s just a ritual. This evening will be one of those times.

This doesn’t mean that the Olympics are without meaning. Most of the roughly 3,000 athletes are “the youth of the world,” and the vast majority will have come to Vancouver, participated in their event(s), and now be returning to their home countries without the slightest chance of ever winning a medal. They will, I hope and assume, have given their best effort, be proud of their performance, honored by the chance to participate, and enriched by the experience. But for the public Olympics, for the Games that most sports fans see (for U.S. fans, almost always on tape delay thanks to the programming geniuses at NBC), those participants will be so much white noise. They are the necessary chorus whose job it is to make pleasant music in the background while the handful of stars shine on center stage. And while those stars may be young, that is the only characteristic they share with the Olympian ideal of “the youth of the world.”

The modern Games are just one more corporate-sponsored presentation of professional competition, a Super Bowl with five rings instead of roman numerals. There is a reason that the NHL cancels its All-Star game in Olympic years. The league will say it’s because there isn’t time for both an Olympic hiatus and an All-Star break, but the reality is who needs another NHL All-Star contest when that is what we have just been watching?

But even in the niche sports the dominant athletes or teams are not starry-eyed youth pursuing a dream. On Thursday the New York Times reported on how national luge federations in the handful of European countries where luge is a livelihood provide financial assistance to federations and individual lugers in more far-flung places around the globe, so that those for whom the sport is but an expensive avocation can continue to participate. As the Times reported, this is not done out of a sense of charity. Rather the “haves” realize that without the Olympic participation of the “have-nots,” their sport runs the risk of being deemed to have too narrow an appeal to merit continued inclusion in the Games.

This progression away from the original idea of amateur contests when the Olympics were resurrected a little over a century ago became inevitable in the mid-seventies. After Avery Brundage retired as IOC President (there are a boatload of reasons to detest Brundage, but his commitment to amateur-only games free of corporate sponsorship is not among them), the IOC moved first to increase corporate participation in the Games and then by 1988 to open the games to admitted professionals (eastern bloc teams during the Cold War having been made up of “amateur” “students” or “soldiers” who just happened to spend all of their time practicing and playing their sport). Some would point to that latter reality and say that the inclusion of admitted professionals has just leveled the playing field. Certainly for the IOC, including professionals and increasing commercialization has been a financial boon. When Brundage retired the Committee had $3 million in assets. By 1980 that number had swollen to $45 million, and since then whenever Olympic television rights are auctioned off, the reported numbers are always breathtaking.

On the other hand, take a few minutes to consider this:

In 2002 at the Salt Lake City Games, Sara Hughes, a 16 year old from Great Neck, New York, came into the women’s figure skating long program in fourth place. She was not the star of the U.S. figure skating team. That role was filled by Michelle Kwan, who led after the short program. She was not even the understudy to the star. That was Sasha Cohen, who was in third, behind Irina Slutskaya of Russia.
But for four minutes the teenager was as close to perfection as one can be on two metal blades. Seven triple jumps, including two triple-triple combinations later, Sara Hughes was in first place. When the evening was over, the other two Americans and the Russian had been unable to catch her.

She won a gold medal, and later, the James E. Sullivan award as the top amateur athlete in the U.S. Then she went back to high school, and eventually on to Yale, where she lived in a dormitory. Today she is a young woman with a full life ahead of her, recently inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Those four minutes will always be a part of that life, but I do not think they will define it.

Or, consider this:

Thirty years ago, twenty collegians, average age twenty-two, faced the best hockey team in the world. Three times they fell behind. Three times they rallied to tie the score, before finally taking the lead. And then the final nerve-wracking minute, leading to the second most famous call in the history of sports casting (with apologies to a good friend who is a life-long Dodgers fan, “the Giants win the pennant!” is still number one).

Thirteen of the twenty would go on to careers in the NHL, and five would become All-Stars. But goalie Jim Craig’s NHL career comprised just thirty games; and captain Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal, believed that he had climbed his personal hockey Everest, and never donned an NHL sweater.

Yes, the progression from Eruzione to Sid the Kid, from the American hockey miracle to the fundamentally different Canadian fairy tale that came true this afternoon, may indeed have been inevitable. Certainly it has been profitable for the IOC, many national federations, corporate sponsors, and a lot of professional athletes. But a progression from point A to point B, however inevitable or profitable, is not necessarily the same thing as progress. Bigger really is not always better.

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