Opinions

Olympics should showcase athletes who had to make sacrifices to compete, not get paid for it

Photo courtesy of VancityAllie (CC)

In the 1960s, the International Olympic Committee made a decision that forever altered the spirit of the Olympics: it decided to open its doors to professional athletes.

The decision has made it possible for some of the highest paid athletes in sports to be among those participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but in doing so it has undermined the very nature of what it means to be an Olympian.

In professional sports, performance is translated into monetary terms, be it salaries or performance bonuses. The more your abilities are valuable to the team or organization, the more you get paid. Simply put, the best athletes are the ones getting paid the most.

But this connection between performance and money belittles what the Olympics are supposed to be about: celebrating the athletic achievement of those who have dedicated themselves to a sport, not for money, but for the love and glory of sport.

Many think that having some of the highest paid athletes participate in the Olympics is not only fair, but also a sign that the games finally feature the world’s very best athletes.

In reality, these eligibility rules have changed the way we view athletic excellence and shifted the focus away from what is so admirable about the Olympics and amateurism more generally.

With professionals in the mix, we lose the sense that the athletes are average people with jobs —some of them students — who must train tirelessly before and after hours. We forget that many of them must pay their own way to competitions and invest in their own training, because professionals are not subject to these concerns.

It also becomes easy to lose sight of the accomplishments of the amateur athletes who continue to compete in the games, when other well-established players are out stealing the show.

The athletes on our Paralympic team, for example, garner little attention in the grand scheme of things. The Paralympics, which take place following the Olympics, are hardly covered by the media. And little is said about the athletes themselves.

The message? Unless you’re a professional with a large fan base that can increase viewership of the games, your accomplishments somehow mean less. Although I doubt any of us truly think this way, it’s sadly the underlying message when all the attention is given to the pros.

The inclusion of professionals in the Olympics has also made money the primary focus of the games, even for the amateur athletes. Not only are modern Olympians driven by the promise of sponsorships, but most countries reward their gold medalists with hefty monetary prizes. These prizes can range from $25,000 in the United States to $800,000 in Singapore, the leader in Olympic payouts.

These prizes, generous as they might be, are problematic for two reasons. First, they are rooted in the belief that winning a silver or bronze medal — or even making it to the Olympics in the first place — is somehow not an achievement. Secondly, they encourage athletes to share this view.

It’s time that we start talking about what makes the Olympics the Olympics, if ever we want to restore them to their former glory. But let’s take money out of our Olympic vocabulary.