Amateurs vs professionals

by Freida Nicholls

Did the original spirit of the Olympics die with the advent of professionalism? Or did professionalism ensure that athletes were able to focus on training and competition, and receive compensation for their performances?

Did professionalism open the gateway for the win-at-all-cost approach? Or did it place athletes without access to adequate funding at a disadvantage?

These and related questions continue to fuel the debate surrounding the entry of professionalism into the Olympics, which hitherto revered the amateur athlete. The controversial Clause 26 of the International Olympic Committee governing amateurism was removed from the IOC statues in 1981, effectively ending the era of amateurism.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s amateur ideal was the founding principle of the modern Olympics, and former IOC President, Avery Brundage (1952-1972) was also a vigorous supporter of amateurism, but the winds of change were on the horizon. The costs of staging the Olympics were rising dramatically, and the debt incurred by Montreal in 1976 was still being paid some twenty years after the Olympics were hosted by that city.

The tables were turned at the Los Angeles Games by the chairman of the Organising Committee, Peter Ueberroth, who presided over the successful hosting of the Olympics through a skillful combination of marketing, sponsorship, and revenue from television rights. The ABC network paid US $225 million for television rights to those Games in 1984.

Ueberroth attracted over 30 other sponsors who contributed more than US$500 million and the delivery of new sports facilities. Commercialism was gaining ground as a viable option to cover rising costs, but it placed tremendous pressure on athletes to break records and provide a real show for the world.

So how does a small nation like Barbados compete on the professional stage? The commitment and dedication to excellence by the prospective Olympian must be matched by the necessary funding and support.

Professional athletes are expected to pay for living expenses, dietary requirements, coaching services, travel expenses to competition, and access to support services of massage therapy, a sports psychologist and a manager. The athlete’s agent receives a percentage of the fees paid to the athlete under a contract agreement.

The champion would most likely attract the funding to cover these expenses. The “up and coming star” will be faced with overwhelming odds to meet these costs. If Barbados hopes to be competitive at the Olympic Games, amateurism must give way to professionalism, in every sense of the word.

Drugs tarnished the Games

The Olympic ideals promote fair competition, honour, the pursuit of excellence and the philosophy of participation over winning, but the desire to win by any means necessary has led to experimentation with performance enhancing drugs.

During the era of amateurism, state sponsored drug use by Eastern bloc countries was suspected, but since drug testing methods were comparatively primitive and there was no established system of testing, concerns remained mere speculation.

It was only after the break-up of the Soviet bloc countries that evidence of rampant drug use was exposed, but even this revelation did not catch the public’s attention until that fateful September morning at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Three days after Ben Johnson won the 100 meters in a world record time of 9.79 seconds, we awakened to the sensational announcement that Ben was expelled from the Olympic Village after testing positive for anabolic steroids.

I recollect the rumours, the innuendoes, the speculation, and the allegations that had circulated for years. I remembered Evelyn Ashford’s indignation, never pointing a direct finger, but complaining vociferously that there were athletes who were not playing fair.

Drug cheats hurt the sport and destroy the reputation of other athletes as well, since the world tends to tarnish everybody with the same broad brush. Those cheaters ignore the consequences of getting caught, and do not consider the lives they destroy, and the pain they cause to innocent people and their families.

Pandora’s box was opened in subsequent years as improved drug testing caught many more in the net — Olympic medalists, world champions and world record holders. The Balco drug scandal claimed the biggest prize of all — Marion Jones was the darling of the athletic world winning five Olympic medals at the Sydney Games, and fans basked in her warm personality, her genuine joie de vivre, and her obvious love for the sport.

Then came the bombshell — she too had taken performance enhancing drugs, and for six years she publicly denied this fact. The United States Federal prosecutor had the evidence from Balco since 2003, and when that was revealed the die was cast.

Those of us who have enjoyed drug free athletic careers are now obligated to explain to young athletes the dangers of drug use, and hope that they will listen above the noise of greed, glamour, and the promise of fame and fortune.


Follow me to the London Olympics on Twitter @ freidaeagle

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