A Few Thoughts at Olympic Halftime

Thoughts on Olympic performances, why the Olympics can’t only be for amateurs anymore, and our misguided notions of amateurism.

Well, even halfway through the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, there was plenty to catch up on. In my last entry on these pages, I mentioned the athletes that Canada, the USA, and Great Britain would be entering in the weightlifting events. Those athletes are all done now so before I go on any further I should report on their performances.

Among the Canadians Marie-Josée Beauchemin-Nadeau took 9th place in the women’s 69kg category with a 98kg snatch and a 130kg jerk. In similar fashion Pascal Plamondon did 155kg and 190kg to take the 13th in the men’s 94kg category. No great surprises there.

The story was similar for Great Britain. Young Rebekah Tiler lifted 101kg and 126kg to take 10th in the women’s 69kg category while in the men’s 94kg Sonny Webster hoisted 148kg and 185kg to finish 14th. About what could be expected.

The USA had four lifters, three of them women. Kendrick Ferris lifted 160kg and 197kg, which earned him 11th place in his third Olympics. With the women there were two 6th place finishers. Morgana King did and 83kg and 100kg in the 48kg category while Jenny Arthur managed 107kg and 135kg in the 75kg category. These placings were slightly better than most would’ve predicted.

The big surprise though came in the women’s 75kg+ category. I had mentioned that Sarah Robles and the others would have an easier time of it without the Russian Tatiana Kashirina, and that certainly proved to be true. I did not expect Robles to take a medal, but I did expect that she would lift well. It turns out that she did both of these, snatching 126kg and jerking 160kg to take the bronze medal. She had definitely been off form when I saw her at the Nationals in Salt Lake City in May, but on Sunday she was totally in control of her game. She was only 4kg and 5kg behind the leaders in the snatch, but fell behind in the clean and jerk. The Chinese and North Korean women out-distanced her by 17kg and 15kg so Robles had no realistic chance of making up that deficit. Therefore she placed as high as she could have hoped for in her second Olympics. A great day for American weightlifting.

If you want to someday compete in the Olympics it will be necessary to go into full-time training for almost any Olympic sport. [Photo courtesy of Hdyeah via Wikimedia Commons]

The Olympics Isn’t for Amateurs Anymore

As usual every four summers, I seem to run into a number of Olympic-related discussions. Everyone will marvel over the exploits of their favorite marquee athletes but invariably there is someone in the crowd who comes up with the now very hackneyed idea that “the Olympics should only be for amateurs”. This is usually voiced by someone with only a sketchy knowledge of the realities of modern-day sport. There are a number of reasons why this idea is no longer workable so I’m going to enumerate them here to assist those who are connected with high-level sport when they end up in one of these discussions.

One of the main reasons why that true amateurism is not going to make a comeback is the fact that the dividing line nowadays is a very fine one between amateur and professional. The armchair critic usually defines a pro athlete as one who is paid for their athletic endeavors. The examples given would be the professional hockey, soccer, and basketball players that now are allowed to compete in the Olympics, the men at least. They certainly are professionals because they are very highly paid and they are making a career from playing. Other careers are often sacrificed in the hopes that they will hit it big on the playing field and become an instant millionaire.

However that is not the only definition of a professional athlete nowadays. The definition today revolves not just around salary, but also around the amount of time and energy that must be devoted to one sporting endeavors. If you want to someday compete in the Olympics it will be necessary to go into full-time training for almost any Olympic sport. It is very difficult to hold down a substantial full-time job and to train twice a day and do justice to both endeavors. This used to be possible, but that was in a day when the competitive environment was much less intense than it is now. A weightlifter at Olympic level is usually looking at twice a day training for 5 to 6 days a week. Any who balk at this regimen need only be reminded that if they don’t want to train that hard their opponents in Europe or Asia certainly do. So if you want to stay in the game you have to find some way of paying the bills. This will often mean an uncertain combination of sponsorship money, possible grants, student loans, parental support, and perhaps a part-time and insubstantial job. This pretty well limits high-level sport to college age athletes or those to whom the opportunity costs of such participation are not yet onerous. Even if you can get some money, there is no temptation to make sport a paying career.

The training required is as difficult if not more so than those who aspire to fully professional sports. It’s important to remember that being an Olympic athlete is not something one does in their spare time. There are no weekend warriors now in Rio. This is not realized by the critics who seem to have this fantasy in their heads that there are a bunch of elite sportsmen somewhere who compete solely on their own resources. There are indeed lots of athletes like that; probably most of the people reading this piece would qualify. But none of those are ever going to be good enough to even think about Olympic competition. There is no gradual transition point between complete amateurism and professionalism as defined not by paydays but by number of workdays.

Even if you could somehow get such simon-pure athletes into the Olympics you then have to wonder who would really want to watch them. Even more important, who would want to pay for such a competition? The networks and sponsors are not going to lay out multimillions to watch even national-level competitors. The same critics who condemn the use of professionals in the Olympics are the same ones who never attend any event that is less than fully professional. Hockey fans love to watch the NHL but most of them could not tell you who their national junior or university champions were. Another example is the Universiade Games held every two years for postsecondary students. Competition here is near Olympic level, but most competitors will be near-amateurs. It is very close to the critics ideal, but those same critics are nowhere to be found in the audience.

Our Misguided Notions of Amatuerism

Lastly I will discuss the concept of amateurism itself. When Baron De Coubertin first conceived of the Olympics he envisioned them being performed by the sons (and not necessarily the daughters) of the well-to-do, the “gentleman” as it were. Professional athletes then invariably came from the “lower orders” of society. It would never do to have these two groups meet on the playing field so the concept of maintaining amateur status was very important. And it was maintained for many decades, but today the concept makes a mockery of modern society’s concept of egalitarianism. Thoughtful observers have since come up with another rationale for a more professional approach.

After years of being told how wonderful it is for athletes to be above any commercial motivations, people are now asking themselves another question: why is it so noble for athletes to perform for nothing when we do not ask this of artists, movie stars, singers, and other public performers. True, the latter are often called upon to perform gratis at benefits but still they are not expected to do so exclusively. And it needn’t stop there. Anytime anyone decries professionalism it might be useful to ask that same critic if he would be willing to write newspaper articles for nothing, to go to the office every day for nothing, to dig ditches for nothing, or whatever. Why does working for nothing ennoble athletes but not their audience members? That is a concept that most people, even the critics, can agree with.

As the Russians say (despite their current Olympic reputation):

“Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.”

No one is going to pay you lifters much no matter how good you are, so get back to the gym.

More on the Olympic training:

There Is No Summer Vacation for Olympic Lifters

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