OLYMPIC TEST CASE
The U.S. Olympic Committee is trying to bring some sense to the Olympic amateur code, that mess of bureaucratic porridge so contaminated by inconsistencies, hypocrisy and outright fraud—state support of athletes and under-the-table payments have become a way of life almost everywhere—that it has long been unpalatable. Declaring his intention to bring the Olympics "into the 20th century," USOC President William E. Simon announced during Olympic meetings last week in Los Angeles that the committee had ruled that Renaldo Nehemiah, the world-record-holding hurdler who now plays pro football with the 49ers, was being reinstated as an amateur in track and field. Although the ruling was to apply only to domestic meets, Simon said he hoped it would be a first step toward restoring Nehemiah's eligibility for international competition as well—and, ultimately, toward liberalization of antiquated amateur rules generally.
The International Olympic Committee is expected to take up eligibility matters at its 86th Session in New Delhi in late March, but prospects for significant reforms are uncertain, largely because of opposition from the U.S.S.R. and East Germany, which feel they have an advantage under the present system. As things now stand, the IOC sometimes seems confused as to exactly who's in charge of eligibility standards, itself or the various international sports federations, whose rules differ widely. As Simon noted in announcing the Nehemiah decision, the international skiing federation's liberal standards allow some supposed amateurs to openly make fortunes in endorsements. In recent months there has been a move within the international soccer federation to declare some younger professionals eligible for the Olympics. Unlike Nehemiah, the soccer players would be competing as amateurs in the same sport in which they've been professionals. It isn't certain, though, whether they'd be considered eligible for the '84 Games. The same uncertainty hangs over Jim Craig, the hero of the U.S.'s Olympic hockey triumph at Lake Placid. Craig played professionally as recently as last season, but world ice hockey federation rules are sufficiently liberal that he's now back playing as an amateur.
In declaring Nehemiah eligible for domestic competition, Simon was bucking the international track federation, the IAAF, and its president, the insufferably pompous Primo Nebiolo of Italy, who likes to say, not entirely in jest, that "the Olympics don't go on without me." Nebiolo argues that Nehemiah can't be eligible for domestic meets at the same time that he's ineligible internationally, a laughable assertion given the fact that several track athletes banned by the IAAF from international competition for illicit drug use have routinely gone on competing in their own countries. Nebiolo reacted to the USOC's reinstatement of Nehemiah with a get-tough declaration that foreign athletes representing U.S. colleges or clubs would endanger their amateur standing if they competed in meets with Nehemiah. That ruling cast into jeopardy Nehemiah's invitation to compete in this week's Millrose Games. For his part, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said his body "must support the IAAF" but blandly added, "I'm sure that the IAAF and the USOC will reach an agreement."
It's hard to feel much sympathy for Nehemiah, who, in signing an NFL contract, knew full well that he was forfeiting his amateur standing. At the same time, the USOC has probably seized on as good a test case as any for challenging the muddled amateur rules, especially when it's recalled that, at Simon's urging, the IOC has posthumously restored the two gold medals Jim Thorpe won at the 1912 Olympics but later forfeited because he had played professional baseball. As Ron Stanko, Nehemiah's attorney, wryly notes, the only real difference between that case and his client's is that " Thorpe is dead."
DAUGHTER OF HEIDI
A mix-up occurred on WICU-TV, the NBC affiliate in Erie, Pa., during the Jets' 17-14 NFL playoff victory over the Raiders on Jan. 15 that was reminiscent of the Heidi Game episode, the NBC foul-up in 1968 in which an executive ordered the network to switch from a nationally televised game, also involving the Jets and Raiders, to the movie Heidi. As a result, most viewers missed seeing the two touchdowns that gave the Raiders a 43-32 come-from-behind win, and NBC was deluged with phone calls from an infuriated public.
In the Daughter of Heidi incident, viewers in Erie, along with the rest of the country, were watching as the Raiders, trailing 17-14 with barely two minutes to play, recovered a New York fumble. Without warning, WICU switched away from the game. By the time it returned, the Jets somehow had the ball back and all the Erie audience saw was Jets Quarterback Richard Todd falling on the ball to end the game. WICU's audience missed both the Raiders' suspenseful drive into Jets territory and Lance Mehl's interception of a Jim Plunkett pass that sealed the New York victory.
Erie viewers weren't happy about the interruption. "The switchboard lit up like the sky on the Fourth of July," said WICU Program Director John Ivan Tomcho. "The calls didn't stop. They were irate calls. No, they weren't just irate, they were obscene. No, they were very obscene."
There were two significant differences, though, from 1968. For one thing, WICU broke away, not for a movie but for its regular live showing of the Pennsylvania Lottery's Saturday drawing. For another, says Tomcho, no executive decided to make the switch. On the contrary, he said, the station had notified AT&T, which is responsible for the switching of feeds to the station, to cancel the lottery feed. But, he added, "all the switching is computer-controlled and the computer switched it to us anyway."