After decades of moralistic breast-beating over the corruption that money supposedly imparts to the essence of sport, the Olympic movement has at last openly—even proudly—capitulated to the formerly unthinkable. It has embraced the ways of professional sport and accepted the means of the marketplace as being the only logical vehicles by which the Olympic Ideal can be transported, alive and thriving, through the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st.
The change has been going on for a number of years, but it has occurred in such a gradual and subtle fashion that until recently, only International Olympic Committee insiders and the most attentive outsiders were aware of the extremity of the upheaval taking place. The Olympics are not only in business these days, they are business. And in certain areas, they are the ultimate in business. For example:
1) The ultimate in merchandising and commercialization. Since June 1985 the Olympic rings have been up for sale to any international corporation interested in using an Olympic connection in its worldwide marketing programs. So far $104 million has been received for the privilege of using the rings to sell the products and services of Eastman Kodak, Coca-Cola, Visa, Time Inc., Federal Express and 3M. The IOC expects eventually to put the Olympic imprimatur on enough other products to bring in as much as half a billion dollars by 1988.
2) The ultimate in creating new markets and sales opportunities for commercial television. Four months ago, the IOC voted overwhelmingly (78-2) to split the Winter and Summer Olympics into alternating two-year cycles beginning with the Winter Games of 1994. This was done for a variety of financial reasons, but mainly to ease the troubles that American TV networks have had in getting advertisers to buy time on their sports programs—not just the Olympics, but all sports programs.
February 9, 1987
3) The ultimate in sports professionalism. The Winter and Summer Olympics of 1992 will be remembered as the last two ever held in the same year, but they may loom even bigger in history because of the extent to which recognized professional athletes will, at least in some sports, be welcomed. There won't be nearly as much of a fuss as before over whether would-be Olympic athletes are or are not amateurs.
What does it all mean? It means a revolutionary new entry into reality and it is very exciting. But if you ask the man most responsible what he thinks, you will get a vapid line of platitudes. IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain is a former diplomat, a consummate politician and a wily executive. Yet when you ask the master designer of this upheaval in the Olympic movement about what he has wrought, he tends to say things that no one takes note of: "We must live with the times.... We have to go ahead, we can't go backward...."
So it is best to find someone else to talk about the new Olympics. The man who does it better than anyone—and acts as a sort of informal spokesman for the IOC and for the cautious Mr. Samaranch—is Richard W. Pound, 44, a large, vigorous lawyer from Montreal, for nine years a member of the IOC and for four a member of the organization's executive board. Pound is smart, articulate and candid, and is seen by many as a possible candidate to take over the IOC presidency when Samaranch retires, which could be in 1992.
Pound is an unabashed admirer of Samaranch—and of the change he has brought about. "Juan Antonio Samaranch is a pragmatist," says Pound. "He is also a man who understands symbolism as well as diplomacy. He is, in my opinion, already one of the three great IOC presidents—the other two being de Coubertin and Brundage. It is because of Samaranch that the Olympics have come to grips with the realities of the world. The global marketing of the Games was originated by him and it had to be done for the Olympics to survive. In terms of opening the Games to professionals, he has favored it for a long time. This is a move that simply legalizes what's already gone on for quite a while in many sports. No more will athletes or officials have to close their eyes, hold their noses and sign a form that requires them to lie about the truth of their lives and careers."
The new Olympic pragmatism is a powerfully positive force. It injects a stream of cash and commercial energy into the Games, and it pretty much eliminates the smog of shamateurism. And to all this, as Pound says, Samaranch is the key. He was elected president of the IOC in July 1980, when Lord Killanin of Ireland stepped down after eight exhausting years. Samaranch won easily, and the most important thing about his victory was that he planned to spend 100% of his time on the job. This was a first for IOC presidents—and it was essential. Pound says, "The Olympics were in a period of crisis then with the boycotts and the other problems. Los Angeles's great success was still four years away. It seemed that great losses were possible at the time. Killanin was a nice man, a fine man, but he was not a full-time president and he had not been physically strong enough to deal with the problems."
John Rodda of the British newspaper the Guardian is one of Europe's leading Olympic journalists, and he says of Samaranch: "The man treats it as a business. With Brundage and Killanin it was rather a polite club, and they just oversaw things. Samaranch never really stops. He got all those cities to bid for the 1992 Games and he has added new sports—baseball in '92, can you believe that? He is promoting Olympic philately and Olympic films. When he travels, he acts like a head of state. It's all a bit pompous, but whenever he sees a problem in a country, he can ring up the head of state and speak like an equal."
In 1985, Samaranch brought about the resignation of Monique Berlioux, the imperious executive director who, during the years of absentee presidencies, had come to run the IOC pretty much as her own fiefdom. With Berlioux gone, Samaranch reigned alone. He has gathered a variegated group of IOC-member confidants into his inner circle. They include Pound, Marc Hodler of Switzerland and Alexandru Siperco of Romania. These men are closer to the president than anyone else in the IOC—but not one of them is Samaranch's closest confidant and adviser.
No, that place is reserved for one very powerful businessman: Horst Dassler, 50, the brilliant billionaire head of the Adidas empire. European journalists routinely refer to Dassler, who is from West Germany, as "the most powerful man in sports"—and this has much less to do with his proximity to Samaranch's ear than with the vast influence he has wielded as chief of Adidas. The company was founded in 1920 by Horst's father, Adi Dassler, a master shoemaker who gave a truncated version of his name—Adi-Das—to the firm that has grown to be a $1.9 billion-a-year business operating in 48 countries. Adi died in 1978 and Horst inherited the enterprise. Through contracts for shoes, clothes and equipment, plus a hardheaded understanding of the politics and personalities that control world sports, Dassler has direct lines of power that run through countless national teams, national Olympic committees, and national and world sports federations, to say nothing of the IOC itself. "The man has simply embraced the whole Olympic movement," says Rodda. Dassler and his products are as ubiquitous as air in the world of sport. Athletes of the Eastern bloc all wear Adidas products, as do the great majority of Third World competitors and some very wealthy Westerners like Edwin Moses.
Samaranch and Dassler are rarely seen together in public, and Rodda says, "Theirs is not an overt relationship." But the two men stay in close touch, and there are some insiders at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, who believe that Dassler delivered the votes to elect Samaranch in 1980 and that he also produced the votes this past October that made Barcelona, Samaranch's home town, the host city for the 1992 Summer Games.
Samaranch has no use for these rumors. Pound declares flatly, "The influence of Horst Dassler has been grossly exaggerated." Dassler himself speaks of it all with quiet derision. He told SI's Anita Verschoth: "That is nonsense about my delivering the votes for Barcelona. I have no influence over IOC votes. Our products do put me in frequent contact with numerous national Olympic committees as well as sports federations, but not with members of the IOC. Certainly, I have a friendly relationship with Samaranch, but I had the same with Brundage and Killanin. And, whoever said I influenced Samaranch's election as president is utterly wrong. He won by a landslide. If I had influenced his victory by such a margin, it certainly would not have remained a secret. In general, Samaranch does not ask for my advice when he makes a decision. All I want is to remain neutral in my relations with Samaranch and the IOC. And that is what I am."
Perhaps that is true—in general. Yet the fact is, Dassler has been far from neutral in the Olympic movement's great new venture into global merchandising. He has been not only prominent, but dominant.
In May 1985, a Swiss-based firm called International Sports & Leisure (ISL) signed a contract to become the world's exclusive agent for selling the Olympic emblem to international corporations that wish to use it for merchandising their products. ISL is a company with two divisions: One is called ISL Licensing and is owned 100% by Dassler and his family. The other is called ISL Marketing and is owned 51% by the Dasslers and 49% by Dentsu, a Japanese public relations firm.
Dassler restructured ISL in September 1982—it had been a small-scale operation since '78—to help market Adidas products and to merchandise major sporting events such as soccer's World Cup and the world volleyball championships. ISL was asked by the IOC to come up with a presentation for marketing the Olympic emblem, and in the spring of 1983, ISL salesmen attended a meeting of the full IOC in New Delhi. At a session of an 11-member group called the Commission of New Sources of Financing, ISL made a video presentation to explain its concept and programs for becoming the IOC's sole worldwide marketing agent. When the ISL sales pitch was finished, Reggie Alexander, an IOC member from Kenya and a notorious gadfly, said, "Who's next?" The chairman of the commission, IOC member Louis Guirandou-N'Diaye of the Ivory Coast, said soothingly, "Oh, I don't think we need to hear from anyone else about this idea." All other members of the commission sat silent.
There was no protest, inside or outside the IOC, over a possible Samaranch-Dassler connection or the fact that no other firms were asked to bid. "I think it was only after the IOC was actually signed on a piece of paper that it was apparent to all IOC members that Dassler controlled ISL," said Rodda.
Dassler himself explains the ISL contract this way: "What people don't realize is that the IOC is not our main partner in the contract. Our main partners are the Calgary and Seoul Olympic organizing committees for the '88 Games and the national Olympic committees. The rights to the Olympic rings belong, in fact, to every NOC. So if you do not have a contract with the most important NOCs, then a contract with the IOC would mean nothing. What ISL did after the presentation in New Delhi was to go out and sign more than 80 contracts with individual NOCs, as well as with Calgary and Seoul. Because we signed them all, the IOC was able to give its nod to us in the spring of 1985. This was not really a bidding situation because ISL had to sign individual contracts with each of those many separate NOC partners to get a contract with the IOC. We have now signed 134 NOCs."
Dassler has patterned the ISL operation directly after Peter Ueberroth's successful dollar-making approach to the selling of the 1984 Los Angeles Games. "What you must do," says Dassler, "is offer the biggest companies all-inclusive rights as sponsors of the Olympics or you won't get the biggest contracts. Ueberroth began the idea of selling sponsorships. It was a terrific idea and it is an example we are pleased to follow. But we are able to offer more continuity for longer periods of time because organizing committees such as the one in Los Angeles are only in business for a few years. We are also able to guarantee worldwide exclusive use of the Olympic emblems to our clients because we are representing the IOC and all of those 134 [out of 164] NOCs, not just one organizing committee."
It is the centralized selling concept and the exclusivity that make ISL's operation work so well. As George Miller, secretary general of the U.S. Olympic Committee, puts it: "ISL offers one-stop shopping for any major international company that wants to merchandise products with the Olympic emblem." Jürgen Lenz, executive vice-president of ISL, says that in addition to the six corporations that have bought in as major sponsors so far, there will be no more than nine other such sponsors for this quadrennium. The sponsors' money is split this way: 6% to the IOC, 10% commission to ISL (low for the average agent firm), and the other 84% among the Seoul and Calgary committees and the NOCs, which dish out large chunks to the various sports federations.
So far, not even ISL's would-be competitors are criticizing what the company has done. Barry Frank, senior group vice-president of Trans World International (the TV branch of Mark McCormack's International Management Group), which was brought in by the Seoul and Calgary committees to negotiate Olympic TV rights for 1988, said recently, "No, I wouldn't say ISL is doing a bad job. Conceptually the idea is good, and they've sold it well—although, I must say, it's a little like selling ice-cold Cokes in the desert." And Rodda says, "They're doing fine. I think that if McCormack or West Nally [a London marketing firm] tried to move in, ISL would still get the contract on the strength of how well they're doing."
With the merchandising machinery in place, the new pragmatists of the IOC took another giant step into commercial reality last October 15 by voting overwhelmingly to split up the Summer and Winter Games. The 1992 Olympics-Winter in Albertville, France; Summer in Barcelona—will remain twinned, but starting in 1994 the Winter Games will operate as a separate—and, everyone dearly hopes, equal—entity.
This is a change that affects the aesthetics, the politics, the financing, the very chemistry of the Games. It is every bit as major an alteration as the one that occurred in 1924, when the Winter Olympics were first spliced onto a Summer Olympics that had been doing very nicely as an only child since 1896. That change had been preceded by four years of divisive debate within the Olympic movement.
This time, by contrast, the mighty upheaval occurred with almost no debate at all. From first glimmer of the concept until the resounding final vote was a matter of perhaps eight weeks. George Miller of the USOC recalled, "We had heard about it in August, and there wasn't even time to call a meeting of the USOC's executive board. Our response was, 'It sounds like a good idea, but could we maybe study it a little?' "
No one studied it much. And, as it turned out, there isn't anything seriously wrong with it—and there is a lot that is right. A split Olympics will keep the Games ever more visible and prevalent in a world of people whose attention span grows more gnatlike every day. It will avoid the previously unavoidable dip in Olympic fund-raising that has occurred in the first two years of every quadrennium. It will allow ISL's hustlers to sell sponsorships over two quadrenniums instead of one. It should bring the price of TV rights for the Winter Games much closer to the Summer instead of being substantially less, as it has always been. It would, for the first time ever, open the possibility of having a Winter Games in the Southern Hemisphere—say in July—without conflicting with a Summer Games.
Not to be overlooked is the fact that the split would offer a tremendous boon to beleaguered U.S. TV network sports departments. They have wallowed in an ever-softening market, caused by a stagnant economy, so-so ratings and cutbacks in TV sports advertising by many former standbys. ABC's whopping $309 million bid for the Calgary Olympics could leave the network with a $50- to $75-million loss. NBC's more conservative $300-plus million for rights to Seoul, with the deal's many elastic clauses, will probably not result in heavy losses, but no one is counting on massive profits, either.
The TV arithmetic in the double Olympic year of 1988 is scary. Using rough figures, the estimate is that there will be about $8.5 billion available in 1988 for all U.S. TV advertising, and roughly $1.25 billion of that will go for sports programming. To break even on rights and production costs in Seoul and Calgary, NBC and ABC will have to generate about $1 billion in advertising in 1988, which leaves a mere $250 million for all other TV sports programming—such as all of the NFL season, all college sports, all baseball, all Wide World of Sports, etc.
Someone must take a terrible beating. And, as a matter of fact, after the '84 Games in Sarajevo and Los Angeles were over, so much TV advertising money had been spent on Olympic programming that the cupboard was bare and the networks were forced to drop their autumn prices—for all sports programming, including the previously platinum-solid NFL—to such bargain-basement levels that they had to operate at a loss.
This commercialization of the Olympics is radical, but not nearly as radical as the effect that professionalization will have on the Games. For the sake of contrast, it is interesting to recall how fierce and exhausting the struggle was to keep the Olympics "amateur." It began with Pierre de Coubertin himself, the French baron who founded the modern Olympic movement; he thought full-time pros should be kept out of the Games because it wasn't fair for them to compete against part-time amateurs. Of course, there were few professional athletes then—boxers, jockeys, baseball players were about it—and the problem was more or less academic. But it didn't stay that way. When Avery Brundage of the U.S. reigned as IOC president from 1952 to 1972, his attempts to keep the Games pure were both pathetic and infuriating. But he never stopped blowing the smoke of his pipe-dream definitions of Olympic amateurism: "An amateur does not rely on sports for his livelihood. The devotion of the true amateur athlete is the same devotion that makes an artist starve in his garret rather than commercialize his work."
It was sweet, idealistic stuff, but it was essentially shortsighted. For what those efforts did was to leave Olympic competition in a permanently crooked condition whereby the full-time pros from Iron Curtain countries developed tremendous advantages over the "amateurs" from the rest of the planet.
Brundage could never get this anomaly through his skull, but the new Olympic pragmatists understand it clearly and have acted to correct it. Pound says, "For several years now there has been a generalized recognition that there is discrimination among Olympic competitors as a result of disagreement over what a professional athlete really is. State athletes have been skewing Olympics results to a point that is absurd. If you check the 1972 and 1976 Olympic medal-winning statistics—the last time East and West athletes competed directly in the Summer Games—you will find that a disproportionately large percentage of all medals was won by state athletes. That's not right; it simply doesn't reflect the true potential of the human condition.
"There was no question in our minds that state athletes were pros. Samaranch has called them that many times in public. Professionalism has been anathema to the spirit of the Olympics for many decades, but we realized that we had reached a point where it was less a problem of professionals than it was a question of fair play.
"That, you will recall, was de Coubertin's reason for opposing pros—they were simply too good to compete against amateurs, and it would be unfair. You can actually tie in our acceptance of Olympic professionals now with the principles of the Baron in the 19th century. It wasn't fair play then, and it isn't fair play now. De Coubertin was a pragmatic man."
Fair play was a fine precept, agreeable to all, but there was still the problem of how the IOC would now define a pro—or an amateur. The IOC's Eligibility Commission, headed by West Germany's Willi Daume, has been laboring since 1981 to write an Olympic athlete's code that would lay down clear new lines and limits of eligibility vis-à-vis money. While nothing seems to be forthcoming, the new pragmatists knew that the semantic definition of Olympic professionalism was a problem that could never be solved by a frontal attack. They understood that it could only be solved by outright surrender. And that is what they did.
In short, the IOC has virtually turned its back on the responsibility of having to define precisely what kind of athletes—pro or amateur—can compete in the Olympic Games. It has turned the matter over to the international sports federations, letting them define it, with the IOC having the final say. It is unlikely, however, that they would rule an athlete ineligible who had already been approved by his or her federation. The wisdom of such strategy boggles the mind. Pound explained it like this: "We started with the proposition that all sport is under the control of the 30 or so world federations for three years and 11 months of every four years. Then, for one month, different rules—Olympic rules—are applied. This, we reasoned, is wrong. We decided it was time to apply exactly the same rules to the Olympics as are applied to other major sporting competitions around the world—the rules of the federations."
This was the needle's eye through which the Olympics' professional camel has now passed. The IOC's new philosophy of professionalism was defined succinctly last fall by Daume in Monaco at the General Association of International Sports Federations Congress. At a press conference he stated: "Eligibility rules have been outlived. In 1981 the notion 'amateur' was deleted from the Olympic Charter. In 1983 we accepted the regulations of the international federation. On the basis of careful examination, the Eligibility Commission is of the opinion that admission should be the same for both the Olympic Games and the world championship as sanctioned by the federations."
Pound puts it this way: "What we want is the world's best athletes competing in the Olympic Games. We do not want a better quality of athletes competing in a world championship than those competing in the Olympics. Professional or amateur—we want the best."
Dassler agrees with the new approach: "Pure amateur status hasn't existed for many Olympics, no matter what sport you're looking at. From the time they are children, big talents are prepared systematically, most of them fully supported whether they live in the East or the West. In principle, these are 'open professional Games,' even though there are still restrictions imposed by some federations. In my opinion the development from amateur to professional has already come to its conclusion."
Predictably, the Eastern bloc is dead against the inclusion of professionals from the West. As Wolfgang Gitter, general secretary of the Olympic Committee of East Germany, told Verschoth: "We always speak up against the admissions of professionals in the Olympic Games because we are convinced that by admitting pros, we allow all the negative influences that come with professional sports to affect the Olympic Games. No one can doubt our position."
Critics like Gitter will no doubt be at least partly appeased by the selective way in which the new professionalism is evolving. This is because it does not mean that a truly "open" Olympics lies in the immediate future. Not every professional in every sport is going to be eligible to participate.
•Take boxing: Will Larry Holmes appear? Mike Tyson? Certainly not—because the rules of the AIBA, boxing's international governing body, are specific: No fighter who has boxed in more than six rounds in a fight is eligible for federation events. That might change, of course, but Colonel Don Hull of the U.S., president of the AIBA, says: "As for other sports, the Olympic Games are being made available to the best athletes in the world. But amateur boxing is so different from professional that it probably won't work for us. Pros fight to see who can take the most punishment. Amateurs are playing a game, a sport, and they want to avoid punishment. There is no way, even if we said to Holmes, we want you to participate, he would go through the qualifying requirements. A pro gets a million dollars to do this. He doesn't do it for nothing."
•Take basketball: Larry Bird? Kareem? Probably not in 1988, but perhaps there will be a yes to NBA stars for '92. Borislav Stankovic of Yugoslavia, secretary general of FIBA, the basketball federation, says, "Our executive board suggested to our full congress in July that all basketball players—NBA, CBA, all of them—should be allowed into our world championship and the Olympics. It went to a vote: 31 opposed, 27 in favor, 14 abstentions. So it is shelved until after 1988, but we will introduce it again, and by 1992 the new rule will exist, I think. All pros will be welcome."
Surprisingly, some of the top American officials are among those least enthusiastic about the prospect of NBA players participating in the Olympics. Robert Helmick, an IOC member and president of the USOC, says, "Open Olympics would be something very different. The requirements are based on fairness and eligibility. Some people feel it's an unfair advantage if you are an NBA player with a seven-figure income. Basketball would be so monopolized by these people that there would not be an opportunity for collegiate-age players to make the Olympic team.... I would be very sorry to see a system like that established." Bill Wall, executive director of the U.S. Amateur Basketball Association, sees the unequal competition of NBA stars versus other national teams as an overwhelming negative: "An NBA team representing the U.S. might have mildly interesting games against Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, but everybody else would be beaten by anywhere from 50 to 90 points. The rest of the world might want to see NBA players in the Olympics just as a curiosity, even if they destroy every other team. But I don't think that would be in the best interest of the game because you lose spectator interest—and certainly TV coverage—with so many one-sided contests."
•Take tennis: It will be a full Olympic sport in Seoul for the first time. When it was an exhibition sport in '84, only tennis pros under the age of 21 were permitted to compete. Now the International Tennis Federation is wildly in favor of all pros competing. The IOC and some NOCs are a little skeptical, and the final decision for '88 will be made in May. The odds are good that every Ivan, Boris, Martina and Chris in the world will be playing for Olympic gold. And if not in '88, then in '92 for sure.
•Take soccer: In '84 the rules were changed to make all pro soccer players from North America, Australia and Asia eligible, as well as pros from Western Europe and Latin America who hadn't competed in the World Cup. This will change somewhat in '92, when all soccer pros 23 years old and younger will be eligible.
•Take track and field: The IAAF, the sport's governing body, has approved federation-laundered income for five years, and no one blinks at direct payments, though they are, strictly speaking, illegal. The IAAF doesn't recognize the term "professional," but it might as well, considering the number of athletes who are defined as amateurs who make their livings from the sport. Athletes who have taken money openly by competing professionally in another sport can apply for reinstatement on an individual basis. The IAAF recently approved Renaldo Nehemiah's return to eligibility for the Olympics as well as for federation events despite the four seasons that he played pro football for the San Francisco 49ers. Next month in Rome the IAAF Council will vote on whether to restore the track eligibility—reinstatement for Olympic purposes would follow—of three current NFL players: Herschel Walker, Willie Gault and Michael Carter. John Holt, the IAAF general secretary, doesn't have a vote on such matters, but he says unequivocally, "I'm in favor of letting them compete. I think it's completely arrogant to say that an athlete like Edwin Moses can compete and then to say that a pro footballer can't compete in amateur athletics. There's no way football can be helping these athletes in track and field. If anything, football hinders them."
•Take baseball: When it becomes a full Olympic sport in '92, it may include some pros. Dr. Robert E. Smith, president of the International Baseball Association, says: "We still say, 'Once a pro, always a pro,' and we have no way of reinstatement yet. After 1988, we could come up with a change that allows in young men who played pro briefly and are now out of the game." He went on to say, "The Summer Olympics come at a time when pro baseball is in session. We don't think there is any way major league baseball would release their players." Of course, there's always the possibility that, with the split Games, Olympic baseball could be played in the Southern Hemisphere during baseball's off-season, but it doesn't seem likely that the association will move toward making baseball open any time soon.
•Take ice hockey: This was the sport that caused all the controversy in '84 over what the definition of a pro was, with the U.S. and Canadian teams using different criteria. Since then the world hockey federation, the IIHF, has put out the welcome mat for all pros, making hockey the most open of all Olympic sports, but IIHF president Günther Sabetzki of West Germany is not expecting the NHL to empty its roster into the Olympic Games. "The NHL won't free its players for the three, four weeks it takes to get ready for and play in the Olympics," says Sabetzki. "Certainly not in the middle of the season. It's a nice move by the IOC, trying to equalize things, but in hockey I don't think it will change much in reality." That is, again, unless the Winter Games are ever held in the Southern Hemisphere in hockey's off-season.
So, some federations go all pro, others come up with mutants. But whatever the various federations decide to do, the Olympic die is cast. The great dive into something like reality has begun, and the Games will never be the same.