The past and future of the Olympics

Once, the Olympics were considered among the most pure of sports events, because of its tradition of amateurism. But today, years after it was abandoned, its past of amateurism is holding the Games back.

For the Olympics to be for amateurs only seemed natural in the early 20th century as the Games and the Olympic movement grew. But the prohibition on professionalism meant that FIFA had to create a separate World Cup if it wanted an international Olympic-type tournament. Today, the World Cup is arguably bigger than the Olympics and the Olympic football tournament is restricted to keep from competing with it.

The Olympic notion of amateurism was probably sustained well past its sell-by date by global geopolitics; the Cold War turned the Olympics into a point of intense patriotic pride regardless of who was competing. By the time the Cold War was over, the IOC had already dropped the professionalism requirement, setting up the 1992 Dream Team. Today, the Olympic basketball tournament is one of the biggest parts of the Olympics, indeed of the whole basketball calendar, and the hockey tournament positively dominates the Winter Games… yet David Stern wants to make the basketball tournament under-23 only and push FIBA’s Basketball World Cup as the new standard of international basketball competition, and NHL players might not participate in Sochi either.

Had the Olympics allowed professionals from the start, or at least in the 1920s, there would have been no need for a separate soccer tournament. The Olympic tournament could have filled the bill quite nicely. Without the World Cup? David Stern and the NHL wouldn’t even be thinking of dropping out of the Olympics. The Olympics would be the great nexus of international competition, which you don’t mess with unless you have a very good reason. I’m not even sure the Olympics would have dropped baseball; Bud Selig would have interrupted the season in a heartbeat to get major league players in the Games, because any sport would kill to have an Olympic tournament. With all these sports playing prominent roles, Americans might not even have to suffer through tape delays.

Instead? The Olympics could become the place for sports that aren’t popular enough outside it to have their own tournaments worth paying attention to. An Olympic soccer tournament with all the players participating might completely dominate the Games and push all other sports to the background, but those sports are more insidiously denigrated by the fact that soccer, and maybe basketball and hockey, are too cool for them.

At one point, I was thinking that if the Olympic basketball tournament became an under-23 affair, I would consider the Olympic Games mostly dead to me and push the notion of a “Pseudolympic Games”, consisting of all those tournaments in the off year between Olympic Games in Olympic-eligible sports that mostly exist because of the Olympic amateurism requirement or the popularity of the World Cup. But the Basketball World Cup might move a year later – funnily enough, to get away from the soccer World Cup – and to encompass the entire four-year Olympiad would result in complications, since the more traditionally-“Olympic” sports tend to have tournaments in every odd-numbered year. But every time a sport declares themselves too cool for the Olympics, I will sigh and observe that the ghosts of Pierre de Coubertin and 19th-century aristocratic notions of the gentleman still haunt the Olympic Movement.

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