The Olympics, Amateurism, and American Politics

by Michael Dorf

The first Olympics to which I paid any attention were the 1972 Munich games, when I was a boy of eight. In history and in my memory as well, those games will always be most closely associated with the kidnapping and eventual murder of eleven Israeli athletes and one German police officer by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September. My own odd connection to that tragedy was sealed when I learned many years later that one of the Mossad agents who carried out the botched revenge operation (depicted grippingly in the 2005 Steven Spielberg film Munich) was named Michael Dorf, although my namesake was the only member of the team that was eventually prosecuted by the Norwegian authorities for the Lillehammer operation who was acquitted.

What else do I remember from the Munich games? Of course there were Mark Spitz's seven gold medals. But for me the athletic event that was most memorable was the men's basketball final. If you don't remember or never learned about that game, here's a recap of the stunning last several seconds: With the U.S. trailing the Soviet Union by a point and seconds remaining in the game, Doug Collins was fouled. He calmly sank both free throws, giving the U.S. a one-point lead. The Soviets inbounded the ball under the baseline, got to half court and the buzzer sounded. But then the clock was reset and the Soviets were given a second try from the baseline. Again they failed. The Americans celebrated. Again the clock was reset. A full-court length pass to the Soviet big man succeeded. He appeared to commit offensive fouls against both American players guarding him, but no foul was called and he made a layup. The Soviets won by a point, ending seven Olympics' worth of U.S. domination of basketball competition.

For American basketball fans (including yours truly), the game's finish is still a sore point. But most observers came to think that the real problem was that the Soviet team was in a position to steal the game at all. They were there because the U.S. team was poorly coached, did not practice together as a team the way that the Soviets and other teams did, and most importantly, did not include the country's best basketball players. The 1972 squad included Collins, Bobby Jones, and other players who would go on to have decent NBA careers but none of the then-dominant professionals. Is there any doubt that a U.S. Olympic team featuring Kareem, Wilt, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dr. J, John Havlicek, and Elvin Hayes would have crushed its competition? That's what happened twenty years later when the U.S. sent an NBA all-star team to the 1992 games, and the rest of the world had gotten better at basketball in the intervening years. Even today, when some of the best players in the world come from outside the U.S., a U.S. pro team without Lebron James or Steph Curry is dominant. For many people, the clearest lesson of the 1972 Munich basketball final was that the Olympic ban on professionals needed to be lifted.

And so it was. Since 1988, there has been no requirement that Olympic athletes be amateurs, although individual athletic federations still have some requirements in a handful of sports. It is easy to see why Americans wanted the amateur requirement dropped. Our best athletes in some of the sports about which we cared most were professionals, and we wanted to win. But there were also two powerful arguments of principle.

First, the amateur requirement was effectively meaningless as applied to the Eastern bloc countries. The Soviet athletes were technically amateurs because in a state-run economy, the government could provide elite athletes with training facilities and generous stipends, while nominally paying them for other reasons. The spirit of the amateur requirement was seen as already being violated by some countries, so fairness suggested lifting it for all.

Second, and more fundamentally, it was difficult to justify the amateur requirement at all. It originated in a view of sport as the leisure activity of the genteel class. In principle, people who worked for a living could also compete at amateur athletics, but in practice, to become a world-class athlete usually required devoting something like one's entire waking day to training. Only people who were independently wealthy or had support from the state or others could do that. The most glaring example of the unfairness of the system was the shabby treatment of Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest athlete in modern history, but Thorpe's story came to be seen as typical rather than anomalous.

Once one sees how the amateur requirement was rooted in the privilege of wealth, it is hard to see how anyone could continue to support it. Even wistful remembrances of the amateur requirement--like this one penned for the 2012 summer games--seem tinged with a money-corrupts attitude that people who work for a living will rightly regard as a luxury unavailable to them. Accordingly, I would not and do not wish to see the amateur requirement revived.

But I want to suggest that there was something of the logic of the amateur requirement that made sense, even if it was misapplied in the Olympic games. In sports, we can see the logic in the debate over whether to permit payments to college athletes. People who argue in favor of such payments (and/or unionization) say that because the colleges and universities are deriving financial benefits from the student-athletes, the latter should receive their fair share of those benefits. Theirs is an anti-exploitation argument.

As Professor Buchanan has shown (here on the blog and in links posted therein), there are difficulties with this argument, even taken on its own terms. But there are also reasons to reject the terms of the argument. Fundamentally, the argument for amateurism in college athletics is not about paying or not paying athletes. It's about whether colleges and universities should be the sites of world-class athletic training and competition at all. We might think that colleges and universities are fundamentally places where students come to learn, and that while athletics are an excellent means by which those students can promote their own good physical health and have fun in their spare time, for the vast majority of students, big-time collegiate athletics requires far too much training time to be consistent with obtaining a higher education. In this view, colleges and universities would have intramural leagues and club sports, but people who wanted to train more or less full-time would go elsewhere.

Moreover, even if one does not think that money inevitably corrupts sports, one might think that there are contexts in which money corrupts. Politics is the most obvious example. Part of the reasoning behind the old amateur requirement, however misapplied in the Olympics context, is the same reasoning that we find in favor of campaign finance restrictions. The people who thought that sport should be a domain uncorrupted by filthy lucre were mistaken because it was already so corrupted. They also failed to see (or care about) the distributive consequences of the amateur requirement. But many of us do think that money corrupts politics in the most basic sense: A first premise of democracy is that each person is to have an equal vote, but unlimited campaign contributions and spending give those with more money a de facto greater vote.

And now that I've pivoted to politics, I'll add one further, largely unrelated observation. I have long thought that the fact that the summer Olympics invariably occur in the middle of a U.S. presidential campaign probably has some electoral consequences. My working hypothesis has been that the Olympics--which tend to bring out feelings of patriotism and nationalism--provide a modest benefit to Republicans, as the GOP has long been the more overtly patriotic and nationalistic party. The hypothesis looks to be impossible to test empirically, however, because presidential election years always correspond with Olympic years. Thus, we can't control for the Olympics.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that I'm right. I wonder whether the "Olympics effect" will be different this year. Although Donald Trump is running an overtly nationalist campaign, he is running a less patriotic campaign than Hillary Clinton--especially as Democrats have argued that "America is already great." I don't have a strong intuition about whether nationalism trumps patriotism or vice-versa. Bonus points to any reader who can think of a way to test my general hypothesis and whether this year is an exception.