Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: Let the Games Begin

Jim Johnson

Jim Johnson

Published: 07-01-2024 3:30 PM

The ancient Olympics ended in AD 393 and for 1,500 years there were no games until Pierre de Coubertin facilitated the revival of the modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens. Since then, the Olympics have grown from 241 athletes representing 14 countries to 10,500 athletes representing 206 countries. They will converge on Paris in three weeks. An estimated 15 million spectators will attend. The organizers have planned a spectacular opening with athletes arriving in boats down the Seine River. Athletes today will compete in 329 events in 32 sports.

Fair play and sportsmanship have always been at the heart of Olympic competition, but following some unsportsmanlike behavior in 1900 and 1904, it was suggested that all athletes swear to an Olympic Oath. The idea actually came from the ancient games when all Olympians swore an oath to Zeus. The oath was finally enacted in 1920 and one athlete from the host nation took the oath for all. Arguments continue about terminology, trying to appease everyone. Some question whether the representative athlete is truly representative. Now, six different athletes take the pledge along with coaches and officials.

A major change in the modern games has been the transition away from amateurism. Amateurism was the rule in the early games. In some respects, Coubertin was an elitist, dismissing anyone who had ever received money for sport. Coubertin saw the model Olympian as someone coming from one of England’s elite public schools, not from the masses. For years all Olympians were amateurs but that began to slowly change. For example, in a desire to increase worldwide competition, the IOC allowed state sponsored teams from the Soviet Union and other countries. For years I loved watching our amateur college basketball players challenge the Russian professionals. That excitement is gone. I’m not interested in watching LeBron James and company beat Cyprus by 100 points.

In 1986 the IOC amended its governing charter to encourage “all of the world’s great male and female athletes to participate.” This opened the floodgates to professional athletes. Many of our current Olympians receive lucrative sponsorships and prize money. Many top level athletes in track, gymnastics, and swimming have huge incomes. The U.S. gives a tax free stipend of $37,500 to each American gold medal winner. For the first time, the IOC awards each gold medalist in track and field $50,000. Meanwhile, many Olympic athletes, in what may be considered minor sports, train and compete with incomes below the minimum wage.

I’m sure there were some ancient Greek athletes chewing on some sort of root or berry with the idea that performance would be enhanced. Today we have substances that are proven to help performance. Drugs can add muscle, improve endurance, and calm athletes in shooting sports. Most of these performance enhancing drugs are illegal for athletes, but that doesn’t stop them. In Paris, 6,000 drug tests will be administered. Some athletes will not be caught.

Women were not even allowed to watch the ancient games, and women’s participation in the games has been slow. Coubertin was against women in sport competition but allowed a few women to compete in 1900. Participation slowly grew but women were not allowed to run further than 800 meters, presuming that anything longer was too much. Finally, women ran the marathon in the 1984 games and the event was won by American Joan Benoit Samuelson. American women have always been competitive but this changed dramatically with the advent of Title IX. As women’s participation in sport in the U.S. exploded, so did our competitiveness. Today, American women’s teams are a powerful force. In the 1900 Olympics, 2.2% of the athletes were female. The IOC recently announced that there is 50:50 gender parity for medal events at the 2024 Games.

The Olympic games are for the athletes, not bragging rights for countries. Winning more gold medals does not mean that you’re a better country. To me, one event embodies the Olympic spirit — the decathlon. Writers have suggested that the best athlete in the world is the winner of the Olympic decathlon — 10 events in two days, one medal. Imagine competing side by side for two days, but after nine events it comes down to the last — the 1,500 meter run. Exhausted, they run on courage. Crossing the finish line, they collapse, totally spent. Recovering, they hug each other, knowing full well what it cost to be there. No nationalities exist, just highly skilled athletes who fully respect one another.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at jjohnson@smith.edu

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