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DFTBA Sports: Olympic Professionals

07/08/2012

I recently watched a video that illustrated the difference in the finishing times of 100-meter dash medallists at the Olympics down through the years, from Thomas Burke’s gold in 1896 to Usain Bolt’s latest victory in London. It featured a distribution graph showing what all of the athletes racing at their best times in a single race would look like, showing the distance they would have finished behind Bolt. It is clear from the graph that times have decreased consistently over the century-plus period of time, at a fairly consistent rate. How then, has it come to be that runners must be a full three seconds faster in order to medal now than they did in 1896?

The Olympic Games are presented as amateur competitions, and they are; athletes are not monetarily compensated by the International Olympic Committee for their performances. They are not, however, competitions for amateur, and there is a key difference. Between endorsement deals and bonuses that are given by sponsors for high finishes, the top tier athletes at the last handful of Olympiads are most definitely professionals, make no mistake about it. Michael Phelps reportedly makes over $6 million a year on endorsement deals from companies as varied as Subway and Head & Shoulders. Less than 24 hours after she won gold in gymnastics, 16 year old Gabby Douglas’s agent brokered a deal with Kellogg’s for her to appear on the box of Corn Flakes.

The fact that athletes are able to support themselves financially through their sports means that they can dedicate their lives to it. Previously, athletics was solely an extra-curricular activity for college students; if you made it to the Olympics, that was great, but you also had to make a career for yourself in some other way. The aforementioned Thomas Burke was a lawyer, and the success of Jesse Owens, the hero of the 1936 Games in Berlin, counted for naught as he went on to work as a gas station attendant. This meant that Olympians couldn’t focus entirely on athletics, lest they be forced to find a job without any qualifications or experience. Nowadays though, the potential to make a living from their athletic prowess results in kids putting massive amounts of effort into sports as early as grade school. In fact, the fastest time set by today’s 15-16 year olds is 10.27, faster than Carl Lewis’ time in Berlin! Therefore, it’s not a surprise that these youngsters go on to destroy the times set by their predecessors. As well as increases in dedication to athletics, improvements in running shoes, training techniques and running track surfaces have also led to faster times.

With superstars LeBron James and Neymar competing in basketball and soccer respectively, it’s more evident this year than ever that the days of amateurs in the Olympics are over, at least among those in the running for medals. One might fear that as the competition level rises with more professionals battling it out, the spirit of the Games is lessened somewhat, that what was was initially a means of locking horns for pride in one’s country is increasingly becoming about individualism, with materialistic gain at stake. However, I have found that any such thoughts are immediately extinguished when you see scenes like Dominican hurdler Felix Sanchez in tears on the podium, or British runner Mo Farrah immediately turning to look back as he crossed the finishing line in first place to see where his friend Galen Rupp finished. Athletics may have been commercialised, but that doesn’t make those involved any less determined to win for their country, or those of us watching at home any less inclined to cheer them on.

~Liam

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