The Olympic Games used to be open for amateurs exclusively before late 20th century. However, as the society evolves, people want more competitiveness in everything, including sports. Eric Dunning, in his essay “The Dynamics of Modern Sport” (in the anthology Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process, Blackwell, 1986), argued that as meritocracy became a major selection tool in the society, competition became more attractive, and in turn, professional sports developed rapidly due to its high competitiveness. As a result, modern professional sports produce record-breaking game results, and can attract more spectators and advertisement than amateur sports that are mainly entertaining the players instead of spectators. The Olympic Games are inevitably affected by the spectators’ change of flavor and higher demand for the debate on amateurism and professionalism becomes more intense. Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made exceptional effort to “protect” amateurs from professional athletes during Avery Brundage’s presidency before 1972, the amateur regulations were basically abandoned (except for boxing and wrestling, due to safety concerns) in 1990s in order to respond to the demand for bringing top professional player in Olympics. This combination of amateurism and professionalism leads us to the following question: does this combination change Olympics to another professional championship or provide a chance for professional athletes to play for intrinsic value of sports, like amateurs, in Olympics?
For some sports, the Olympics is a dream for either professional players or amateur players, such as track and field, and swimming. Despite world championships, such as the IAAF Diamond League, that are more rewarding in terms of prizes, professional athletes still redeem the Olympic Games as the MOST important game of their life. People always refer to the Olympic Games achievements in order to measure a track and field athlete’s success. For example, when we talk about Michael Phelps, we often mention his groundbreaking number of gold medals (22) in the Olympics.
Also, Usain Bolt marked his stand on the track by winning Olympic golds in 2008. Since Olympics is a dream for these players, they would absolutely enjoy the game however their performance. They are not professional athletes in the Olympic stadium, because they are not there for the money and prize. They are exactly the same as amateurs: they are there to enjoy the intrinsic values of sports.
Even for fully developed professional sports, like basketball, players In 1992 Barcelona Olympics, we was able to see a collection of all NBA super stars on the U.S. Dream Team. Perhaps the greatest Olympic team assembled, the Dream Team did not fail us, won the 1992 men basketball gold medal, and made it into NBA Hall of Fame 2010.
These NBA players needed to play during the basketball season from November to June and could have taken the summer off with family and friends to relax or practice with new plays for the next season with their teams. But they decided to join the Dream Team and play for their country. Although NBA supplied these plays to the national team in order to gain cultural recognition worldwide and attract more sponsors, the team definitely wanted something other than money, such as the pleasure of playing with other great teams of other countries and the personal satisfaction out of honor and glory, which are main values of amateurism. In later reflections on the game, these super stars on the Dream Team all stated great enjoyment from the game. “Barkley said, ‘I don’t think there’s anything better to representing your country. I don’t think anything in my life can come close to that.’ Bird called the medal ceremony and the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner ‘the ultimate’ experience.” Clearly, they were enjoying the game just like amateurs.
According to Dunning, professionalism and amateurism are two polars of modern sports. One is purely for competition and prize, and the other for enjoyment and pleasure. However, in Olympic Games stadium and arenas, both professionals and amateurs enjoy the game for its inner values. Admittedly, many athletes compete in the Olympics for potential sponsors and worldwide recognition, but they are undoubtedly enjoying the game at the same time. For me, Olympics have not turned into another professional championship, but become a precious opportunity for all people around the globe to appreciate the “amateur” beauty of sports.