For the first time in 12 years the Americans and Soviets squared off against each other in the Olympics, and it all seemed perfectly normal. For the first time in the 20 Olympics that the U.S. has competed in, it didn't finish one or two in the medal count, and nobody got hysterical. Seoul built a whole new Olympia, and cities the world over are standing in line to pay to construct their own, while athletes who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year over the table are shamelessly romanced by Olympic officials.
The Games in Seoul showed that the Olympics have moved into a new era a few years before they move into their second century. For most of the Games' first 92 years the issues that commanded attention off the field were politics, money and amateurism (which is, of course, politics and money). The Seoul Olympics indicated that in large part these issues have been resolved, or perhaps simply dissolved, by compromise and evolution. In their stead is another major issue that will engage the Games at Barcelona in 1992 and beyond—drugs.
On the field, too, we saw a change: Entertainment has superseded excellence as the central purpose of the Olympics. For a lot of reasons—some obvious, but many of them simply idiosyncratic—Seoul wasn't as good theater as that of other recent Games. Never mind that not a single heroic figure in the mold of Hamill or Jenner or Korbut or Comaneci captured the imagination—what we would have given for just one lonesome Eddie the Eagle, soaring low, making us smile. Instead, center stage was more often occupied by antiheroes and outright villains. How murky things are when the U.S. loses in basketball to the Soviets and most Americans are more irritated at coach John Thompson for taking all the fun out of things than at the Commie Rats for winning?
But personalities aside, these Olympics concluded with one message writ large: Get rid of drugs. There are racists and there are sexists, and these Games made us all drugists. This kind of drugist is someone who automatically assumes that all athletic performance is controlled by chemicals. If a guy drops a pass, he's on coke. If he catches it, he's on steroids. The whole illusion of sport (which is what a fan traffics in) is being robbed from us.
October 9, 1988
By all odds Flo-Jo and her sister-in-law, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, should have come away from Seoul as prom queens to the world, like Mary Lou and Olga before them. Instead, because of the ugly shadow of drugs, their achievements were held up to suspicion, and our affections wavered. In fact, Mike Moran, the spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee, felt compelled to tell a press briefing that the two athletes had passed their tests. It's ironic that the movie about the Black Sox scandal of 1919, Eight Men Out, is in the theaters now. What was so devastating about that gambling fix was not that one World Series was thrown but that faith in the whole sport was jeopardized. Was every game fixed back then? Is everyone on drugs now?
The rumors are everywhere in sport. Even a spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ruefully characterized Seoul as "the rumor Olympics," and the disease is upon all our games. Dr. Robert Voy, chief medical officer for the USOC, said the other day that 50% of all the players in the NFL—not just half the linemen, but half of everybody on the rosters—are on steroids. And Tex Schramm of the Cowboys, that man of conscience, now seeks to bring poor Ben Johnson's beautiful body to play football in Dallas. Coals to Newcastle.
Sponsors will become more circumspect. The stakes are too high for a major company to risk identification with a drug scandal. P.S. (post-Seoul): If athletes want to get rich off the field, from now on they will not only have to be Caesar's wife, they will also have to have Caesar's wife's urine to prove it.
Still, long before Johnson's supposed St. Kitts drug connection was revealed, it was clear that these Olympics weren't big box office. What does that portend for Barcelona? "I thought Americans wanted to see excellence wherever it comes from," says Michael Weisman, the executive producer of NBC Sports. "I found that's not the case. First, Americans want to see Americans competing and Americans doing well. I guess we learned that jingoism sells."
NBC's depressed ratings for the Seoul Games will mandate some changes on the screen. Part of the 1992 network package may be sloughed off to cable, and it's also likely that the winning network will follow the lead of the IOC and broker sponsorship to only a handful of elite companies—at top dollar—rather than peddle spot commercials to any buyer that antes up. That should help reduce the squawking about too many commercials, which has been one of the big gripes about this year's telecasts.
Whatever other changes the Seoul Olympics bring, there will be no change in the way American TV plays patsy to the world. Nineteen ninety-two is not only the year the Summer Games return to Western Europe for the first time since '72, but it will also be the year in which the European Economic Community officially will become an entity and, it's reckoned, stand on equal economic footing with the U.S. and Japan. But this year NBC dished out $300 million in Olympic rights money, Japan $52 million and all of Western Europe $28 million. To finance its exorbitant investment, any U.S. network must clutter up its broadcast of the Games with innumerable commercials, while other nations of the world pay less and enjoy the Olympics more.
Of course, the Barcelona ratings should pop back up if only because of the scheduling—the Games will be held during the last week of July and the first week of August. The early autumn weather in Korea was magnificent, but it should be clear by now that the Olympics play best in the dead of winter or the doldrums of summer.
In this regard, much was made of the conflict between the Seoul Games and the baseball races and the heart of the football season—see what the boys in the back room will have—but the greater evidence suggests, once again, that women make or break the Olympics on TV. The Katarina Witt-Debi Thomas skating showdown drew near Super Bowl numbers in February, and even without a star, women's gymnastics was the biggest ratings hit for NBC in Seoul, while the likes of men's gymnastics, basketball and volleyball did relatively poorly in prime time. So look for even more female-oriented programming in both the 1992 Games.
And, surely, look for more players and more sports. The aggressive acquisition policy of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC president, only picked up more steam in Seoul. The addition of tennis as a medal sport for the first time since 1924 was particularly symbolic, for when tennis's millionaire pros waltzed in under the Olympic umbrella, they displayed clearly to a world that had not yet caught on that the Olympics have shucked the dowdy old amateur wife and taken up with a racy professional mistress.
The Communist countries have, for the most part, fallen enthusiastically in line. "Now, everybody wants their best athletes to compete," says Vladimir Gheskin, the most knowledgeable Soviet sports journalist. The only four entities on the face of the earth that are holdouts against professionalism appear to be Cuba, Romania. East Germany and the U.S. basketball federation (ABAUSA).
Tennis will almost surely receive a permanent invitation. And to the dismay of ABAUSA officials, who fear the loss of their fiefdom, the betting is that NBA players soon will be voted into full membership in what used to be international amateur basketball. Only soccer is going in the other direction. The IOC wants to end all restrictions on who can take part in Olympic soccer, but Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Havelange, president of the governing body of international soccer, is scared that if all soccer pros are welcomed into the Olympics, the World Cup will lose its status as the world's premier soccer event. The battle over soccer will probably rage into the '90s, as the Olympic octopus continues to spread its tentacles.
The IOC has become, in effect, an athletic protection agency: Either you sign up with us or your sport will lose government subsidies and atrophy. Sports such as kayaking have not become everyday activities since being accepted into the temple, but nevertheless it goes unchallenged that any sport needs the IOC's blessing to prosper in the modern world.
Moreover, with the new open Olympics, countries are not only supporting national teams and subsidizing athletes during training but also offering bonuses to medalists. For the IOC this is just more of a good thing. Se‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±or Samaranch's organization enjoys making a profit running a professional tournament, but the host city picks up the operational bills, and the performers are paid by a variety of third-party outsiders. This has, sadly, spawned a new form of hypocrisy. Whereas the IOC heartily accepts lucre from commercial sponsors, it refused the same courtesy to Matt Biondi, the American swimmer, when it denied him the chance to make a commercial for Disneyland and Disney World (and something like 50 grand) while posing at an Olympic venue.
Certainly, as more professionals enter the Games, the pressure to pay these sportsmen in a currency other than patriotism is bound to become a nettle-some factor. The issue may be accelerated, because Olympic athletes don't turn over as quickly now as they did in the amateur era. "We need to face reality, that to be a power in worldwide athletics, we can't get along with just collegians," says Robert Helmick, president of the USOC. "We need older, more mature athletes."
The Seoul Games will be seen as a watershed Olympics. The old problems of boycotts and nationalism and professionalism have been put to rest, and there will be a changing of the guard: Moses and Ashford, Louganis and Lewis and Thompson will almost surely not be at Barcelona unless they show up in blazers that identify them as color commentators. The Olympics they entered have changed. The fears of the past have faded, the voices have been lowered. And though the one great problem of steroids is grim, it can be solved by the Olympic leadership. Far from having their leaders boycott each other's Games, the Olympic hierarchies of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. seem enthusiastically disposed to join together to fight drugs. To enter the Olympic venues, we have already come to accept one kind of body search. To battle back against bloodstream terrorists, we can learn to accept another.
And blessedly, amid all the emphasis on entertainment and commercial excess, athletic excellence can still be the priority. Someday someone might even catch up with Bob Beamon's long jump record.