Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Amateur v. PRO: Part 1—Amateur
The promise of amateur athletics is a utopian ideal where physical achievement and the triumph of the human spirit remain impervious to the contamination of capitalism. This idealism grown in a world where basic needs aren’t in doubt, a Star Trek society where you do what you’re good at and are adequately rewarded with a happy off-duty life.
If only it were so.
So why do we have this fantasy of sports uncorrupted by capitalism? Because it creates the impression, if not outright illusion of athletics pursued for the sake of excellence alone—the real Olympic ideal. There are those of us who mistrust the introduction of money into any endeavor. After all, money is the source of greed and greed is among the most cancerous of human frailties because it has the ability to hurt the community.
There is, however, nothing wrong with the desire to see athletics freed of cash’s ability to short-circuit our sense of ethics and fair play. But let’s ask the question: Independent of our desires for the Olympics to be wrested from the grip of professional sportsmen, what do we believe will be gained by having amateur athletes contest the Olympics? There are many possible answers, but one is most likely.
The simple truth is that we want to see sports pursued for the simple pleasure of honest, but profoundly skilled competition. We want to see sports played to the height of their given excellence. And we want that to happen in a setting in which the drive for achievement is nothing more than the love of the game.
Unfortunately, different people have different drives. Sure, there are examples of athletes, musicians and artists who were driven by their dedication to their craft and often their commercial achievement suffered because they were so inattentive to the realities of the marketplace. However, some people excel because they see athletics or art as a means to an end. Achieving in one arena provides the fuel to acquire the good life, much like a career in acting can lead to success in politics.
While we can expect that most athletes aspiring to the Olympics have the same goal, it is unreasonable to believe that we can persuade all athletes to be motivated by the same ideals. The corrupting element of riches can be eliminated from amateur sports before an athlete competes in the Olympics, but one cannot stop the rush of money that comes with winning Olympic gold. And because Olympic gold is a guarantee of short-term success and a good insurance plan on long-term success, no one should ever believe that an athlete who wins gold will willingly continue a lifestyle marked by deprivation.
We may doubt the achievements of professional athletes who have the resources necessary to employ a medical team that can not only guide a doping program, but has the requisite sophistication to avoid detection. And for some reason, this has fostered a belief that stripping a sport of financial reward will eliminate the threat of a sport degraded by doping. ‘If you get rid of the money, you’ll get rid of the drugs,’ seems to be the thinking. But will a return to the days of amateur status, i.e. financial deprivation, really bring about the change we seek?
In short, no. Athletes seeking that short cut to glory and riches will do what’s necessary to get results. It would likely eliminate the systematic drug programs of the ‘90s, but such a change will not ensure a clean sport.
We must also ask the question: What does it mean to be an amateur and how does that relate to the Olympic ideal? The Olympics are meant to be mankind’s greatest expression of athletic excellence, epitomizing what the human body can accomplish with proper training. Broadly defined, an amateur is anyone who engages in a sport on an unpaid basis. Put simply, no one makes it to the Olympics while holding down a full-time job that pays the bills.
If we look at the modern Olympic movement, the participation of “amateur” athletes is characterized in most countries by a national athletic federation supporting the athletes in dormitories or apartments and covering their basic financial needs. In absolute terms, these athletes live at a subsistence level, though former Iron Curtain athletes were said to live far better than the average citizen.
This seems to be a reasonable arrangement. No one would contest the understanding that the training necessary to win an Olympic gold medal can not be done while holding down a full-time job. Ask any cyclist who has ever raced if they could have been faster had they not worked.
These national federations receive substantial value by supporting aspiring Olympians; by providing them “room and board” they increase the likelihood that one of the athletes will bring their country the prestige that comes with a gold medal. Which is why governments fund these national federations. While not as distasteful as a political manifesto, touting a country’s Olympic accomplishments is still propaganda.