Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What changed the Olympics forever

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Mon July 23, 2012
Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals, won in the 1912 Olympics, because he had once been in semi-pro baseball.
Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals, won in the 1912 Olympics, because he had once been in semi-pro baseball.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: For decades, the Olympic Games banned professional athletes
  • He says the decision to admit pros changed the nature of the games
  • Greene: Having pro athletes compete increases potential for games to make money
  • He says as long as the Olympics are televised, pros will be there to compete

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights" and "Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan." He appears on "CNN Newsroom" Sundays during the 5 p.m. ET hour.

(CNN) -- For all the cheers, roars and ovations in all the Olympic stadiums and arenas over all the years, perhaps the most significant Olympic sound heard in the last quarter-century was a yawn.

Because a yawn, symbolically, was how the public greeted what might have been the most controversial change in rules that the International Olympic Committee ever instituted.

The one firm rule that always governed the Olympic Games was that amateur athletes were permitted to compete. Professional athletes were not.

That's what made the Olympics the Olympics.

Until it didn't.

And the fans, far from protesting in outrage at the change, didn't care. In fact, they seemed to like it a lot.

In the Olympic eras before television, athletes who accepted money for their performances might as well have been lepers, in the eyes of the IOC. If it was discovered that you got paid for playing, or that you accepted commercial endorsements, you were shunned, banished, cast to the cold winds.

'An iconic test of strength and skill'
A look back: London Olympics in 1948
Lady boxer breaks Olympic glass ceiling
Olympic athlete on pressures of competing

In the most famous example of the inflexibility of the Olympic organizers, Jim Thorpe, perhaps America's finest athlete of all time, had his gold medals in the decathlon and pentathlon in the 1912 Olympics stripped, and his achievements nullified, because he had once accepted small amounts of money for playing semi-pro baseball during his college summers. It broke his heart. The medals were reinstated in 1983 -- 30 years after his death, 30 years after the moment could have given him any comfort.

Torch starts final leg before London Olympics open

It may be hard for young viewers of this summer's London Olympics to imagine, but all the sponsorships, advertisements and marketing hoopla that are a standard part of big-dollar contemporary Olympic Games were thought to be an insult to the Olympic spirit not so long ago. The Olympics were supposed to be about love of sport, not love of money.

Then came TV.

The president of the IOC during the years of television's phenomenal growth was an American, Avery Brundage, and the guiding principle of his reign (1952-1972) was what was called the "amateur code." He was unbendable on the subject. In a 1955 speech, Brundage said:

"We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the Games from being used by individuals, organizations or nations for ulterior motives."

Meaning: to make money.

But once Brundage was gone, the floodgates opened. The IOC, after his regime, realized that commercial interests could turn the Olympics into a bottomless goldmine. And to bring in viewers, it was determined that an effective lure would be the presence of the greatest and most famous athletes in the world. Many of whom are professionals.

"The pros are there for a reason," the esteemed sports journalist Ron Rapoport, who has covered six Olympics, told me the other night. "People will tune in to watch athletes they know. The pro athletes are pre-sold to the public, which means increased viewership."

What made it an easy sell was the suspicion that athletes from certain Eastern Bloc nations were de facto professionals anyway: They were supported full-time by their governments to train and compete. So, by the end of the 1980s, the move toward professionalization of the Olympics had gained full steam.

Which seemed to be just fine with the fans. If the best athletes were paid for their skills, or for granting endorsements, why not? The concept of "selling out" -- once such a pejorative -- had become almost meaningless. Making a lot of money for being good at a sport was a badge of honor.

When the Dream Team of National Basketball Association players from the United States went to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the transformation was complete. If you spent any time around the members of the Dream Team in the months leading up to the Olympics, you couldn't help noticing that they were not exactly a bundle of nerves. They were going to win, and they knew it -- Michael Jordan spent much of his time in Barcelona either playing in all-night card games or getting in 36 holes of golf a day. The Olympics were a very successful business trip for U.S. basketball interests; the real dream was the one realized by David Stern, the NBA commissioner. The 1992 Olympics were the best global marketing tool the NBA ever had.

If you spent any time around the members of the Dream Team in the months leading up to the Olympics, you couldn't help noticing that they were not exactly a bundle of nerves.
Bob Greene

(Many people point to the fact that the Dream Team won their games by an average of almost 44 points as the most remarkable statistic of those Olympics. I've always thought that there was an even more extraordinary one: The Dream Team was so good that its head coach, Chuck Daly, did not call a single timeout during the entire Olympic tournament.)

Of course the problem with the Dream Team, and its successors representing the United States in Olympic basketball, is that they are automatic overdogs. The world outside the United States would love to see them lose -- it's "Break up the Yankees," on a planetary scale. The amateur U.S. ice hockey team at Lake Placid in the 1980 Winter Olympics -- the "Do you believe in miracles?" team -- was cherished because they won when they were said to have no chance. No Olympic team of U.S. basketball pros will ever know that feeling; the "Do you believe in miracles?" emotion will be reserved for teams who are trying to knock them off.

The size and scope and riches of the 21st century Olympics are a far cry from how the games began, and there's no going back. Few people seem to want to. The spectacle is hypnotic.

There would be a sure-fire way to restore what was seen as the purity, and the love of competition for competition's sake, of the early Olympics -- a way to drive the marketers and merchandisers and global sponsors away so that the Games would simply be games again. All the IOC would have to do is add a short sentence to the Olympic Charter:

"The Olympic Games shall not be televised."

That would do it.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the opening ceremonies in London will be held on Friday.

Rumor has it that they'll be on television.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT