Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What changed the Olympics forever

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
July 23, 2012 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT