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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
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
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
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
April 16, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
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?
April 15, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
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
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
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
April 13, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
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?
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1906 GMT (0306 HKT)
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1649 GMT (0049 HKT)
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
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1416 GMT (2216 HKT)
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
April 12, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
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
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1731 GMT (0131 HKT)
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
April 14, 2014 -- Updated 1522 GMT (2322 HKT)
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
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1632 GMT (0032 HKT)
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
April 11, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1640 GMT (0040 HKT)
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1839 GMT (0239 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1328 GMT (2128 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
April 10, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
April 9, 2014 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT