Professional athletes from around the world are gathering in Sochi for the XXII Winter Games. They're coming from the National Hockey League, Disney on Ice and professional ski circuits and temporarily leaving behind (but not abandoning) endorsement deals, mega-salaries and personal appearance fees.
Soon we will be hearing eloquent speeches about the Olympic Movement, the betterment of world youth and the beauty of sport — and very little about the fact that the Olympics have become a bloated, garish, capitalist orgy. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Ask the NFL. But the NFL is upfront about its goal of wringing every last dollar out the pro football experience. The Olympics used to stand for something more.
The Games used to be about amateur athletics. They rewarded the dedicated athletes who labored, often in obscurity, for the love of their sport and the love of their country.
Then the lines between pros and amateurs became blurred, particularly by the presence of Soviet-bloc athletes. Then the lines were obliterated. Now the NHL takes a break from its regular schedule to send over its best players. Amateurism just doesn't sell on the big stage in today's market.
The true amateurs at the Winter Games aren't amateurs by choice. It's just that their particular sport offers no possibility of earning a living. Still, those are now the best events to watch. That's where real sacrifice will be on display. And, frankly, I'd prefer to watch a beer-bellied curler waving a flag than a multimillion dollar hockey player.
Incidentally, during the curling competition in Turin in 2006, a streaker with a dot-com address written on his chest and wearing a chicken hat raced across ice sheets, disrupting the match between the British and American men. It was one of the darnedest things I ever saw and something that seemed to pretty much sum up the current Olympic movement.
The International Olympic Committee voted to allow all (re: professional) athletes to compete starting in 1988. By 1998, the NHL agreed to halt its season so its players could get in on the action. The Winter Games really have never been the same since. Now we have the equivalent of the World Championships but in high gloss, high definition.
The hockey action will be terrific, of course. But underneath, it's just another professional tournament. The men's Olympic hockey teams use to barnstorm around the country, playing minor pro and college squads in an effort to improve. The women still do; it's easy to get behind a group like that.
But now the guys just take leave of their professional leagues, show up a few days in advance, shake hands with their temporary teammates and hit the ice. And then win or lose, the coach always talks about how the team has only been together for a few days. Well, that's the system that has been put in place: Drop in, play, take off. And it's a lousy system.
The patriotic fervor generated by the 1980 Miracle on Ice team will never be duplicated. Circumstances won't allow it. Oh, and if you're old enough, you may remember that there was no live telecast of that game against the Soviets. ABC presented it later on tape delay. Well, we all were more innocent then. Actually, we stayed innocent for a while longer, too.
As recently as 1992, a non-NHL U.S. hockey team was able to capture the hearts of the American people. In '92, Team USA had a great preliminary round and eventually wound up finishing fourth overall. That was considered a huge accomplishment, and TV ratings soared in non-traditional hockey markets from Oklahoma to the Deep South.
Dave Peterson coached that team. I remember that he always wore a little button that said, “It's a Great Day for Hockey” in tribute to Badger Bob Johnson. Soon after returning home, Peterson showed up in St. Paul to be inducted into the Harding High School Hall of Fame.
It costs billions to host an Olympics these days. Sometimes the host city and country can turn a profit, but often they can't come close. It costs billions to televise the Olympics. Usually, the networks struggle to break even. It costs billions to be corporate sponsors at the Olympics. Those companies never break even because it's hard to quantify the effects of their advertising campaigns.
But the Games keep getting bigger, bulkier and more made for television. The competition, featuring the world's top pros, will be outstanding. There will be great entertainment at the hockey rink.
Afterward, they'll hand out medals instead of paychecks. Otherwise, business as usual.