Where no Eagles soar

This winter the Olympics return to Canada for the first time since the Calgary games of 1988. For many people, the most vivid memories of that Olympiad are the colourful stories of some of the less accomplished athletes, such as British ski jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards and the members of the Jamaican bobsled team. It's unlikely, though, that there will be any charming underdogs in this year's Olympiad, as the games become more and more the province of professionals. As audiences and advertising revenues drop, however, will the professionalization of the Games spell their downfall?

The notion that the Olympics are a celebration specifically of amateur sport dates back not to the ancient Greek games, as many believe – the Greeks made no distinction between professional and amateur athletes, and in fact had no word equivalent to “amateur” – but to the founder of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin. Greatly influenced by the ethos of the “well-rounded boy” and the “gentleman athlete,” de Coubertin felt that it was important that each nation's athletes represent the general citizenry, not its professional athletes.

These rules were taken quite seriously for a long time, in some cases more strictly than might seem reasonable: participation in any professional or semi-professional sport was considered grounds for disqualification, as in the case of American athlete Jim Thorpe, who lost his medals for the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon because he had played semi-professional basketball. The rule clearly originated, at least in part, from an aristocratic distaste for anyone who had to work for a living – which explains the general disqualification of Swiss and Austrian ski instructors from the 1936 games. As the 20th Century wore on, however, the rule began to look like an anachronism – in particular because many nations “gamed the system” by supporting full-time “amateur” athletes.

In the 1980s two events dealt a final blow to the amateur ethos. The first was the creation of the so-called “Eddie the Eagle rule”: while audiences had found his relatively poor performance charming and even inspiring, to the International Olympic Committee it was an embarrassment, and a rule was passed that Olympic hopefuls must place in the top 50 competitors and the top 30 per cent in qualifying competitions. Where before it had been possible to go to the Olympics if you competed in a sport that interested few of your countrymen, it was now necessary to be one of the world's elite athletes. At the same time, the International Basketball Federation abandoned the distinction between amateur and professional athletes in 1989, making it possible for professional basketball players to compete in the Olympics; as a result the American basketball team dominated the event for the next three Olympiads. This may be seen as an opening of the floodgates, as the governing bodies for other sports gradually abandoned the notion of amateur status as well (most notably hockey in 1998.)

A funny thing happened, though, as the Olympics became less averse to people making money from their sport: the Games started making less money themselves. The American network NBC, which bid successfully for the Olympic broadcast rights back in 2003, is expected to lose as much as $200 million on this year's event. The Olympics, once guaranteed to deliver record ratings and revenues, have been reduced to that status of a “loss leader” that will, at best, draw attention to NBC's more profitable offerings.

There are a number of reasons for this. Advertising is in a slump worldwide as a result of the recession, and many advertisers are moving more of their money to new media rather than traditional outlets such as print and television. At the same time, it does seem that the Olympics have lost some of their lustre. The increasing professionalism of the Games may have something to do with that: after all, if the Olympic Games are simply professional sports, why watch them instead of the professional leagues? The average hockey fan probably has more loyalty to his city's team than to a Canadian national team that may not feature any of his favourite players – particularly when the Olympics causes a break in the hockey season. A uniformly high level of skill, meanwhile, may be satisfying to watch, but it has little emotional appeal: the travails of the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Olympics became a successful movie, as did the underdog victory of the American hockey team in 1980, but it's hard to imagine much drama in a film about the 1992 US basketball “Dream Team.”

What's ironic about the increased professionalization of the Olympics is that it has taken place at the same time as what we might call the rise of the amateur in other fields: thanks to the increased availability of media production tools (such as digital video cameras, home recording equipment and video editing programs) and the advent of distribution channels such as blogs and YouTube, it has never been easier for amateur artists to find an audience. Some of these amateurs, of course, have ambitions to become professionals or semi-professionals; there have been any number of musicians, comedians, film-makers and even journalists whose amateur efforts have either found professional outlets or led to professional work. But what's more interesting than that is the amateur ethos found in many online communities. As the authors of the recent book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out note, much of the creative work available online is not only done without expectation of material reward but in contexts where it is literally impossible for the creators to get paid for their work: fan fiction, unlicensed subtitling of foreign films (mostly Japanese animation), mashup videos and so on. This is work done truly out of love – which is, of course, the root of the term “amateur.”

Do the Olympics have a future? Perhaps not – it certainly seems likely that the broadcast rights will fetch a substantially smaller sum the next time they are auctioned off. It's likely that they will continue, out of sheer momentum if nothing else, but there's little question that their importance will be much diminished. Most likely we will someday look back at them as a symbol, like I Love Lucy or the last episode of M*A*S*H, of a bygone age when everyone watched the same thing – and when we still distinguished between professionals and amateurs, and between producers and consumers.