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Frank Deford
October 10, 1988
Politics and money are dead issues, drugs and new sports aren't
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October 10, 1988

Olympian Changes

Politics and money are dead issues, drugs and new sports aren't

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Of course, the Barcelona ratings should pop back up if only because of the scheduling—the Games will be held during the last week of July and the first week of August. The early autumn weather in Korea was magnificent, but it should be clear by now that the Olympics play best in the dead of winter or the doldrums of summer.

In this regard, much was made of the conflict between the Seoul Games and the baseball races and the heart of the football season—see what the boys in the back room will have—but the greater evidence suggests, once again, that women make or break the Olympics on TV. The Katarina Witt-Debi Thomas skating showdown drew near Super Bowl numbers in February, and even without a star, women's gymnastics was the biggest ratings hit for NBC in Seoul, while the likes of men's gymnastics, basketball and volleyball did relatively poorly in prime time. So look for even more female-oriented programming in both the 1992 Games.

And, surely, look for more players and more sports. The aggressive acquisition policy of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC president, only picked up more steam in Seoul. The addition of tennis as a medal sport for the first time since 1924 was particularly symbolic, for when tennis's millionaire pros waltzed in under the Olympic umbrella, they displayed clearly to a world that had not yet caught on that the Olympics have shucked the dowdy old amateur wife and taken up with a racy professional mistress.

The Communist countries have, for the most part, fallen enthusiastically in line. "Now, everybody wants their best athletes to compete," says Vladimir Gheskin, the most knowledgeable Soviet sports journalist. The only four entities on the face of the earth that are holdouts against professionalism appear to be Cuba, Romania. East Germany and the U.S. basketball federation (ABAUSA).

Tennis will almost surely receive a permanent invitation. And to the dismay of ABAUSA officials, who fear the loss of their fiefdom, the betting is that NBA players soon will be voted into full membership in what used to be international amateur basketball. Only soccer is going in the other direction. The IOC wants to end all restrictions on who can take part in Olympic soccer, but Jo�o Havelange, president of the governing body of international soccer, is scared that if all soccer pros are welcomed into the Olympics, the World Cup will lose its status as the world's premier soccer event. The battle over soccer will probably rage into the '90s, as the Olympic octopus continues to spread its tentacles.

The IOC has become, in effect, an athletic protection agency: Either you sign up with us or your sport will lose government subsidies and atrophy. Sports such as kayaking have not become everyday activities since being accepted into the temple, but nevertheless it goes unchallenged that any sport needs the IOC's blessing to prosper in the modern world.

Moreover, with the new open Olympics, countries are not only supporting national teams and subsidizing athletes during training but also offering bonuses to medalists. For the IOC this is just more of a good thing. Se�or Samaranch's organization enjoys making a profit running a professional tournament, but the host city picks up the operational bills, and the performers are paid by a variety of third-party outsiders. This has, sadly, spawned a new form of hypocrisy. Whereas the IOC heartily accepts lucre from commercial sponsors, it refused the same courtesy to Matt Biondi, the American swimmer, when it denied him the chance to make a commercial for Disneyland and Disney World (and something like 50 grand) while posing at an Olympic venue.

Certainly, as more professionals enter the Games, the pressure to pay these sportsmen in a currency other than patriotism is bound to become a nettle-some factor. The issue may be accelerated, because Olympic athletes don't turn over as quickly now as they did in the amateur era. "We need to face reality, that to be a power in worldwide athletics, we can't get along with just collegians," says Robert Helmick, president of the USOC. "We need older, more mature athletes."

The Seoul Games will be seen as a watershed Olympics. The old problems of boycotts and nationalism and professionalism have been put to rest, and there will be a changing of the guard: Moses and Ashford, Louganis and Lewis and Thompson will almost surely not be at Barcelona unless they show up in blazers that identify them as color commentators. The Olympics they entered have changed. The fears of the past have faded, the voices have been lowered. And though the one great problem of steroids is grim, it can be solved by the Olympic leadership. Far from having their leaders boycott each other's Games, the Olympic hierarchies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. seem enthusiastically disposed to join together to fight drugs. To enter the Olympic venues, we have already come to accept one kind of body search. To battle back against bloodstream terrorists, we can learn to accept another.

And blessedly, amid all the emphasis on entertainment and commercial excess, athletic excellence can still be the priority. Someday someone might even catch up with Bob Beamon's long jump record.

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