I love watching the Olympic games. The first time they were on television was the 1960 summer games from Rome when I was just 5 years old. I would be less than honest if I said I remembered anything from those 20 hours of broadcasts that flashed across our old black and white console TV. But I do remember being glued to live, expanded, color (some events anyway) coverage from Tokyo four years later. Every four years, it was must see TV. I attended my first Olympics in person in 1976 in Montreal, driving cross-country in my little Ford Pinto station wagon with a college classmate and two cousins from Minnesota. I enjoyed the experience so much that I hoped to make it an annual event. But President Carter called for a boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so I watched on TV instead. I was living in Southern California when Los Angeles was the host city in 1984. In spite of being recently married and a new mother, it was an opportunity too good to miss. We went to rowing, water polo, track and field and baseball events. My dad was a volunteer and worked several events on or near the UCLA campus. For various reasons, that was the last Olympics I was able to see in person, but my love for and interest in the Games has never waned.
Having played a lot of different sports and being a physical education and athletic training major in college, I knew what a herculean task it was to qualify for the Olympics in any sport. It was all the more impressive to me that Olympians were supposed to be amateurs, often holding down regular jobs or going to school, all the while finding time to complete a demanding training schedule. Never mind the cost of equipment, coaching or training facilities. At least that’s the way it was when I was in college. It was especially satisfying when an American would beat out an athlete from one of the old “Eastern Bloc” countries to earn a gold medal. Call it jingoistic if you must, but we all knew that their athletes were being paid by the government yet somehow still qualified as amateurs. They did not have to work around a work schedule and all their living expenses were of no concern. I’ve come realize that they were probably not alone in finding loopholes to the strict amateur status that had been demanded. In any event, all that began to change after Avery Brundage, the American president of the International Olympic Committee stepped down after the Munich Olympics in 1972.
By 1988, the amateur requirement had been completely lifted, allowing professionals to participate in the Olympics. It would be easy to say that it was all about money and in a way it was. The Olympics needed the money from broadcast rights to pay the ever-increasing cost of putting on the games and the television people needed to entice more viewers so they could sell more advertising. Viewers, especially here in America, wanted to see the playing field leveled after years of feeling cheated by the wink and nod given to the government supported teams, especially the Soviets. Personally, I felt that this change would ruin the spirit of the games, but I don’t think that has been the case. Elite athletes have a unique tenacity and commitment that is not driven primarily by economic gain. Most complete for the love of the sport and the desire to reach the highest level. They are invigorated when they achieve the desired results and are motivated by when they fail to live up to their own high expectations. Being able to accept money for the hard work they put in day in and day out just makes it easier to focus on what they do best. The vast majority of athletes will never be able to earn a living, let alone get rich, doing what they love. But because they love what they do, we are all richer for being able to witness the effort.