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Original Issue


Olympic purists should know by now there's no stopping the marketing bandwagon

Nobody should be surprised to learn that the president of the International Olympic Committee, Barcelona's own Juan Antonio Samaranch, is a banker. After all, Samaranch has been suspected for some time of putting mercantile considerations ahead of sporting ones. Indeed, with the Summer Games about to begin, the competition among athletes, multinational corporations, T-shirt manufacturers, souvenir peddlers and others tapping the occasion for commercial gain shapes up as a hotter race for gold than anything likely to happen on the playing fields.

Samaranch valiantly seeks to deflect suggestions of hucksterism. "Without money, sports would grind to a halt in all countries," he recently told The New York Times. "But we accept commercialization with conditions. For example, you won't see any billboards in any Olympic installation. It must be the only international sports event where the stadiums don't carry advertising."

It is comforting to know that Olympic archers won't be in danger of confusing bull's-eyes with Iberia Airlines ads. Still, a lot of people with exalted ideas about the Olympics think that the Games have grown too commercial during Samaranch's 12 years on the job, that the Olympic brass has been overly zealous in extracting money from sponsors and TV networks, and that in turn, the sponsors and TV networks have created an Olympic marketing orgy. Arguing that merchandising of the Games has long since reached the saturation point, the critics would have you believe that Baron Pierre de Coubertin is spinning in his grave over the crush of business interests using Olympic tie-ins to peddle cars, computers, soft drinks, cameras—well, what aren't they selling?

What rankles Olympic purists all the more is the demise of amateurism, the quaint concept—born in 19th-century upper-crust England and flogged to a fare-thee-well by Samaranch's IOC forebears—that playing sports should be its own reward. Resentment is directed most keenly at the Dream Team, the presumably unbeatable collection of U.S. basketball millionaires who are riding the global exposure afforded by the Games to even greater riches. Whatever, the purists ask, happened to the simple pleasures of competition and the Olympic ideal of international brotherhood?

There is, however, a certain naivetè in such objections. The Olympics have always been subject to exploitation. For example, host countries have often seized on the Games as a way to promote tourism and improve their image. Really, now, is using the Olympics to sell consumer goods any worse than using them to sell morally bankrupt political systems, as Hitler's Germany did in 1936 and, more recently, as the Soviet Union and East Germany did in trying to ascribe political significance to their success in the Games? If the Olympics could survive all that, their value is unlikely to be diminished by a little moneygrubbing; in fact, it's precisely because the Games are valued that businesses want to be associated with them. At a time when most of the world is hopping aboard the free-market bandwagon, it is unreasonable to expect the people who run the Olympics to simply wave as that shiny vehicle passes by.

The yearning for some sort of golden age of amateurism is especially unrealistic, ignoring as it does the under-the-table payments and not-so-secret government subsidies that have long been a staple of the Games. And what was so swell even in theory about a philosophy that sprang from the notion that playing fields should be reserved for gentlemen and closed to working stiffs? In truth, not even gentlemen played sports for their own sake; they used sports to build character, to teach lessons useful in business and, as a British writer once put it, to make sure that young sportsmen "left the field too tired to think impure thoughts."

True, the basketball competition in Barcelona could be a snoozer, one in which the U.S. is cast in the role of bully even without Bobby Knight's presence. But it is no less ridiculous that until now the U.S. was prohibited from drawing on the NBA—thereby bypassing 300 or so of the best players in the country—just to feed the illusion of global basketball parity. It says here that the Olympics should be a festival celebrating the highest in athletic achievement. May the day soon come when major league baseball players and pro boxers are Olympians too. Instead of expecting the U.S. to pull its punches in basketball, other countries should take American supremacy as a challenge and try to catch up. And don't worry, they will.

Although a marketing tool, the Barcelona Games will surely produce moments that Olympic traditionalists can cherish. The parade of nations at the opening ceremonies on July 25 promises to be a particularly stirring occasion. It's a safe bet that when the athletes from such newly democratized countries as Hungary, Lithuania and Albania, and the integrated team from that former racist outcast, South Africa, march smartly into the Montju‚àö√òc stadium, there won't be a dry eye in the house. Ordinarily you would expect a few spectators to also shed tears over the $1,000 or more they will have paid scalpers for tickets to those ceremonies or the $400 a night they will be spending for their hotel rooms.

But, hey, at a time like this, who thinks of money?