It’s not like USA Basketball will miss a beat without him, but when two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors announced that he was going to skip the Rio Olympics to rest a sore knee, it just reinforced the belief that for many professional athletes the Olympics are more like the Pro Bowl than the Super Bowl, a nice consolation for the guys who don’t make it to the Big Dance. The only athletes who rely on the Olympics are the ones in track & field, swimming, gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, etc. And for track athletes, at least, the irony is that they have to cover up what little sponsorship they do have when the world is finally watching.
It is kind of crazy, right? So how’s this for a counter-intuitive “do the opposite” consideration?
Because the Olympics only comes around once every four years, and then so completely dwarf the non-Olympic year competitions in running, rather than help build up the sport, the Games actually restrict interest to their very small window. Thus, as long as the Olympics remain at the top of running’s mountain, the sport will never experience new growth, leaving athletes with no voice, much less a financial interest in the biggest competition that defines their careers.
When we look at basketball, tennis, cycling, hockey, golf, many of the athletes in those sports who also compete at the Olympics say they would rather win a Major title in their own sport than an Olympic gold medal. On May 5th 2016 a New York Times article, Golf’s Schedule Takes the Sheen Off Olympic Gold, reported a rift opening between the PGA Tour and the IOC, leading some top golf pros to forego the Olympic experience as two of golf’s four majors will be contested within the scope of the Olympic summer schedule.
Ever since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to allow open (professional) competitors to compete in the Olympics beginning in Seoul 1988, there have been both accommodations and disagreements between professional leagues and the IOC. FIFA restricts participation in the Olympic football (soccer) tournament to players aged 23 and below in order to protect its own World Cup tournament’s prestige and market value – though three male players who do not meet this age limit may also be included for the Olympic finals. In truth, FIFA sees the Olympic tournament more as a youth development competition, because they already have several top international tourneys which are more important.
The National Hockey League was initially reluctant to allow its players to compete because the Olympics were held in the middle of the NHL season, which forced the league to halt play if many of its international players were to participate for their home countries. In 1998, however, NHL came to an accommodation with the IOC. A preliminary round was played without NHL players or the top six teams—Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden and the United States—followed by a final round which included them. The tournament format was changed again in 2006; every team played five preliminary games with the full use of NHL players.
Baseball had a long history as an exhibition/demonstration sport in the Games until coming on as a full medal sport in 1992. But at the IOC meeting on July 7, 2005, baseball and women’s softball were voted out of the 2012 Games in London after Major League Baseball refused to suspend their season to accommodate top international players in the Olympic tournament.
And now with champion golfers like Adam Scott of Australia, and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Swartzel choosing not to participate in Rio, each seeing golf’s four majors as more important in their careers than an Olympic gold medal, there are some who wonder whether the IOC will continue including golf on the schedule after 2020.
The point is that while the Olympics holds an undeniable cachet, it may well be that a sport is better served building up its own championships before coming to the Olympics, because they own the rights to their own sport. So notwithstanding that athletics remains the centerpiece of the Olympic program, the IOC owns that program lock, stock and smoking starting pistol. Accordingly, the athletes in running have ceded their top competition to an outside agency, one in which they hold no financial interest. When the Olympics was purely amateur, this was never an issue. But now that professional sports have joined the Olympic family, how a sport stands in relation to the IOC is very important.
If running could ever build up its own championships like tennis, basketball, golf etc., they could still participate in the Olympics, but within that new arrangement might end up working WITH the IOC rather than FOR them.
Today, institutions like the Abbott World Marathon Majors, New York Road Runners, the Boston Athletic Association, Chicago Event Management, RunCzech, Great Run, Virgin Sports, London Marathon Charitable Trust, Atlanta Track Club, Competitor Group, and Conqur Endurance Group (the new organization set up by the Los Angeles Marathon folks), are no longer small little back office non-profits handling mimeographed entry blanks. The sport of road racing has fully matured. It could just as easily run its own professional show. The pieces are all in place. Yet they remain in the coils of a corrupt constrictor (IAAF) that has choked the life out of the sport while filling its own swollen belly with profits.
Yes, athletics may still be the centerpiece of the Olympic Games, but it’s the IOC’s Games, not the athletes’ Games. It’s a closed shop. The IOC holds the imprimatur over the IAAF which, in turn, has a firm hold of the athletes’ short-and-curlies. The IOC and IAAF make billions through the Olympics, while the athletes work years for what, shiny medals? That’s the deal? Where are the athletes going for their financial advice, the Native American playbook that sold Manhattan island to the Dutch for $24?
“People still look at this like it’s the Chariots of Fire,” says Pat Lynch, former elite athlete coordinator at the Boston Marathon, alluding to the 1982 Oscar-winning film that showed the imperiousness of the original governing design. “I’ve told people in the sport, ‘you have the brass ring. You have what they want’. The right person just has not come along to catalyze this, a strong personality — maybe the president of some country — but someone to say, ‘this is bullshit’. The only way is to break free.”
What seems obvious is that if the Olympics is your be all and end all, then you better watch out, because notwithstanding your current standing, you don’t control that platform. Plus, with the IOC inviting every other major sport into the Games, their presence waters down the traditional Olympic sports like athletics. So for the overall health of the sport there needs to be at least a discussion about what should constitute running’s pinnacle, and who might share in its fruits.
Think about it. If other sports looks at it as the Pro Bowl, why should running still consider the Olympics their Super Bowl?