Steph Curry skips Olympics
NBA MVP Curry opts out of Olympic tourney

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.

Djoker over Murray in Melbourne
2008 Olympic bronze medalist Novak Djokovic beat 2012 gold medalist Andy Murray at the 2016 Australian Open, then completed the career Grand Slam by again topping Murray at the French Open last weekend.

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.

IAAF President Sebastian Coe (Getty Image)
IAAF President Sebastian Coe (Getty Image)

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?



  1. The question is? Is history repeating itself? The non -revenue Olympic Sports must be wondering what the future holds and will the history of the Olympic Sports repeat itself. A brief review of Olympic sports shows the same pattern of decline. The Ancient Olympics became politicized and commercialized and were gradually over-shadowed by Circus Maximus and came to an end in 393 AD.

  2. Toni:

    Excellent blog post.

    I have watched in the last few weeks as many professional athletes in other established sports are starting to have their top athletes decide that Rio isn’t that important to them this year. After all, the cachet is a bit worn now… as pro’s have been allowed to compete openly since 1988 or a bit later…. and the newness freshness has worn off.

    Plus, the economy is not so good in Rio right now and there is always the ever present very high crime rate there…. but, hey, Chicago’s crime statistics have been alarming in the last couple years now….and they were a spurned candidate for this 2016 Games at one time. We can’t look down our noses at Rio just because of that one point. With all the international security, Brazil will be safer in August than in any other time for the past 25 years!

    But, no one seems to be talking about the Threat of the Zika Virus right now and the WHO and CDC’s newest recommendations to both men and women attending these 2016 Games in Rio where Zika is apparently rampant…. The newest recommendations are that if you are a pregnant woman… or thinking about getting pregnant soon… then you definitely should not go. And, if you are a man….and have a wife or girlfriend of child bearing age… and/or you might want to have children with somebody in the next year or so… then you should either not go… or you should be prepared to be celibate for the next 2-6 months… or to practice only protected and careful sex with a condom for 2-6 months…. maybe longer.

    They don’t have a foolproof method of testing whether you have been infected with this virus now.. so you can’t fly back to the States and get checked first to give you and your partner any peace of mind. Everyone that goes… has to act like they are infected, whether they are or not… for the safety of their sex partners…and especially any future innocent children. Well, I am no prude… but I do think that the specter of having a week or two at an Olympic Games.. have that much of an impact on one’s sex life… may be the biggest turn off to many professional and big name athletes right now!!! That may be too steep a price to pay for these athletes in soccer, golf, tennis, etc… who, as you point out, make plenty good money already and may actually get more money & respect… from their sport back in the states… than what they might get from the Olympics.. unlike runners, swimmers, gymnasts, etc. Until Zika becomes a real threat back here in the good old USA… then these athletes may want to lead a life of sexual freedom without restrictions for 2-6 months… more than they want to chase any medal of golf, silver, or bronze color… just for national pride! They may be patriotic at core… but they will vote with their feet… based on what’s most important to them. I believe that an unrestricted sex life trumps patriotism for most of the top professional athletes who already have everything else back here. What do you think?

    1. Craig,

      Thanks for responding. I see where the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie has opted out of NBC’s Olympic coverage, cause she’s pregnant and afraid of Zika virus.

      The Olympics stopped being about the athletes a long time ago, if they ever were about that. It’s about rich guys making land deals. The winter Games is about building winter resorts.

      And remember when they used to finish the men’s Olympic Marathon as prelude to the Closing Ceremony, so the stadium would be filled? Nowadays the few top guys finish inside, and the rest are funneled to some outside finish, and the Closing Ceremony is totally separate.

      The Games are slowly losing their appeal. Too many sports, too many events, and rampant corruption all around. Or, is that just my cynicism?


      1. Toni:

        Savannah Guthrie is just following the current CDC recommendation because she is pregnant. I totally understand that and I bet most other people do, too. Originally, we used to think that the Zika Virus was dangerous only to women… but now we know that it can be passed to women by their sexual partners weeks after the fact. That is what is making this such a dicey situation with younger men who are still in a relationship with a women of childbearing age….or might be in the next 6-12 months.

        We’ve had lots of risks at the Olympic Games since the 1972 Munich Massacre… but none ever impacted our personal love life like the Zika Virus does….and some risks/fears/restrictions are just more objectionable than others! I just don’t think the media is talking about the real concerns here…. and it will not only effect the athletes but paying spectators, too! I’m betting that the tourism dollars at this Games will be down as a result of Zika more than anything else. Mess with people’s sex lives…and their reproductive possibilities….and there will be hell to pay! Way worse than terrorism….

        Ask me about the Olympics losing their appeal in September … and we can pass judgement then. If they are… then NBC is in big trouble because they have mortgaged the ranch to be the official USA Olympic Network for the next 10-20 years, right? They’ve paid an enormous rights fee to broadcast the Games, America…and if interest/ratings ever fall… they will lose an unbelievable amount of money that could threaten their financial solvency.

  3. Excellent commentary Toni!

    I’d love to repost this in the AthleteBiz Village if you are OK with that.

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