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The Real-World Olympics

The concept of amateur athletics rose out of Victorian England, when constipated young aristocrats who looked like Jeremy Irons dressed in white and ran along beaches to the tune of “Chariots of Fire.” They undertook competition purely for the sake of competition, a kind of “noblesse athleticism” that only the rich could afford. It was truly a noble pursuit, this single-minded striving for some glorified ideal, but, sadly, it has become nothing more than an anachronism.

It is fitting that the organizers of the Olympics have finally dispensed with the charade of amateurism and opened the door to paid athletes such as Michael Jordan and Martina Navratilova. The IOC recognized what most of us have known for a long time: that becoming the best is a full-time job. Really, it’s more than a full-time job, and it’s not unrealistic to expect a person who makes that kind of commitment to get paid for their results. As idealistic as I’d like to be, as much as I’d like to believe in an amateur Olympics, those lofty Victorian ideals wither in today’s world, and there have been so many under-the-table payments in so many sports for so long that it’s long past time to stop hiding behind facades.

World Cup skiing has finally joined the ’90s. Instead of doling out little gold coffee beans to winners, as they did last year, World Cup organizers are paying cash. Alberto Tomba won $45,000 in two technical races in Park City last November, an amount that made downhillers so jealous they threatened to rebel if more green wasn’t coughed up for their next race, in Val d’Isere. In Germany, a court just ruled that World Cup ski racers have a right to receive a share of the money sponsors pay national teams to place logos on uniforms. We’ve finally admitted that sports are big business—and there’s no turning back to “Chariots of Fire.”

The best illustration of that, at least in this magazine, is contributing editor Michel Beaudry’s story on the controversial new Olympic downhill course at Val d’Isere. The story, which begins on p.34, raises interesting and difficult questions about the role of commercialism in sports. Who are these events for? What role should television play? How much say should the athletes have?

These questions are difficult in part because there are no clear answers. The solutions are ambiguous and even contradictory, which is even more difficult to accept in this case because sports aren’t supposed to be ambiguous. They’re supposed to be black and white. Sports appeal to us because they deliver an element of finality and a clearly delineated winner and loser. Sports should let you escape from the confusing ambiguities and gray areas of the real world, not add to them.

Of course, all this stuff being stirred up is just a backdrop to the Olympics, and I don’t think it should reduce or taint your enjoyment of watching the Games. As easy as it might be to be cynical about commercialism in the Olympics, the solutions may end up being beneficial to everyone. In the end, it doesn’t really matter whether racers get paid, which logos appear on their uniforms, or what their motivation is for racing. What these men and women do on snow is radical. It’s skillful and heroic and exciting, and there’s nothing ambiguous about that.

First published in Powder Magazine, issue 20.6, February 1992. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.

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