2008 Beijing Olympics: The Amateur and the Olympic Games

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2008 Beijing Olympics: The Amateur and the Olympic Games

No Pass Out Checks | Gate21

Olympic Coverage on Gate 21 Over the weekend I spent a fair amount of time watching the XXIX Olympic Games from Beijing — taking in all that comes along with the quadrennial rite that is the Olympics.  It was an excellent weekend of competition, celebration, and pageantry.

Bearing all of this in mind, I began to ask myself what is the Olympics “place” in the overall world of sports?  Many would say that the Olympic Games are the single most important competition in sports — the “ultimate” expression of athletic competition.  On the other hand, others would argue that the Olympics really aren’t about sports at all, representing the exercise of diplomacy through other means.  Finally, there are those who would — for various reasons ranging from the lack of their favorite sport from the games to a lack of interest in international competition — say that, while engaging, the Olympics are largely a second-tier sporting event focused more on “ancillary” sporting events.

For me, however, the Olympics hold a special place — if only because of the “amateur spirit” which they embody…

I do eagerly await the Olympics each time they roll around.  They are — for me — a sublime opportunity to view events and competitions that are far beyond the sports I normally have the opportunity to follow.  So too, there is something that is uniquely endearing in the pursuit of achievement in the name of ones homeland, where the accolade is far less tangible than that which accompanies success in modern “big time” sports.  That is the essence of amateur competition — not completely divorced from many of the reasons I so identify with college athletics as opposed to professional sports.

Of course, one can become a little to idealistic when it comes to the Olympics…

Gone are the days of “lily-white” amateurism from the Olympics as an ideal governing the competition between nations.  This was not only the mantra of the international Olympic movement during the first three-quarters of the 20th Century, but was tenaciously enforced by individuals such as Avery Brundage, who served as the President of the International Olympic Committee until 1972.

During that era, any “taint” of professionalism by an athlete would assuredly lead to banishment from the games for life, and could possibly lead to medals being stripped.  The stand of the IOC was clear: Any athlete competing in the Olympic Games must be an amateur.

Of course, things were not always as pure as the powers that be would suggest …

As anyone who witnessed any of the games held during the Cold War, the amateurism of some of the Eastern Bloc countries was perpetually in question.  Furthermore, at times the stance on amateurism often overshadowed the real purpose of the Olympic Games, and placed form over substance with only the individual athlete feeling the pain of the IOC’s censure.

Thus, perhaps, the “good old days” were not always as good as we have been led to believe…

Nonetheless, there is something that has been lost over the years as the Olympics seem to have moved farther and farther afield from the old amateur standards, to the point that — in all sports but boxing — professional players are welcomed.  With this transition came the advent of the so-called “Dream Teams,” peopled with superstar professional athletes from across the globe.  The thought of playing against the greatest that the NBA has to offer is a daunting and discouraging prospect for a team from a smaller country lacking a professional league or an established sports infrastructure.  Still, as the United States Olympic Basketball team learned in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, “David” still has a lot of stones in his sling when it comes to the “Goliaths” of the sports world.

Competition, however, is not always a fair fight, and, perhaps, that reality is part of what makes the Olympics special.  Perhaps it is the “against all odds” mentality or ethos which makes the Olympics beautiful as a spectacle of competition.

The Olympics are not about necessarily winning or losing, but about trying despite the odds…

For me, the single most poignant image of the Olympics is that of Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss completing the marathon in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.  I still remember watching the then 39 year-old competitor for Switzerland come limping into Olympic Stadium — at least twenty minutes behind the winner — barely able to walk.  She had only to complete one lap around the stadium track to finish the race.  As she staggered from side to side, barely able to stand upright, she continued on.  Fearing that she might be suffering from heat stroke, several medical staff actually walked alongside her as she took a heart wrenching 5 minutes and 44 seconds to complete the circuit of the field, before collapsing across the finish line and receiving immediate medical care.

The pragmatist would say that it was foolish for Andersen-Scheiss to continue on when she was clearly suffering and had no hope of winning.  The utilitarian would undoubtedly conclude that she should stop, because the risk to her health far exceeded the benefit to be gained by completing the race.  Sometimes, it is not rational, it is not practical, it is not about winning or losing — it is about heart, determination, and finding what it takes to put one foot in front of the other to finish the journey you have begun.

Sometimes, it is simply a testament to the human spirit…

I suppose that is what still draws me to the Olympic Games.  In this regard, it is still a competition of amateurs, in some ways. For many athletes at the games, the competition is not one of professionals versus the amateurs.  It is not one of one country versus another.  It is not one of winner and loser.

In the Olympic Games — even today — for many athletes it is a competition between heart and head.  It is the battle between self and soul which brings competitors from far and wide who have not a single hope for victory.  They do it not to prove that they can beat any other athlete, break any records, or win any medals, but to simply prove that they can compete…

… and in this battle with self — the battle to find the will to press on — there are no professionals.

– Go Figure …Email lawvol


Image Courtesy of: ZDF.de
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