As July creeps closer and we near London’s opening ceremonies, it’s time for the second installment of the SpreeGoogs 2012 Olympics primer. Earlier this year we looked at Usain Bolt and his reign as the Fastest Man Alive. Now we stop to examine Michael Phelps and the curse of the modern Olympic athlete.
Part II: The Curse of the Olympian
The more you think about it, being an Olympic athlete is kind of a raw deal. The participants in the bulk of these events only get mainstream recognition once every four years, over maybe just 2-3 Olympic games during their careers. Like in 2008 at Beijing, when Michael Phelps won a stunning eight gold medals and was touted as one of the premiere athletes in the world, we were inundated with coverage about his remarkable feat and couldn’t escape Phelps’ likeness no matter where we turned. But then the media frenzy surrounding Phelps and other Olympians died down almost as soon as the closing ceremonies began. And that’s the plight of our Olympic athletes: world-class talent but sideshow recognition. Such is the curse of the Olympian.
I’m not saying that when the Olympics are on that they’re not a big deal. And I’m not saying that Phelps isn’t a household name or that he won’t be immortalized—we can look at Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis or even (ugh) Bruce Jenner to see that the Olympic pantheon has a lore all its own. But, I am pointing out the obvious by saying that as the 2012 games approach, we should be prepared to see a whole lot more of Michael Phelps as he and other athletes return to the national consciousness.
And this reveals the somewhat hypocritical attitude the public takes towards Olympic athletes. It’s unfortunate but true that most people ignore non-mainstream Olympic sports three out of every four years. However, even while out of the national conversation, Olympians are expected to uphold the most stringent behavior as role models and bearers of their nation’s pride. This means, as Phelps found out, that Olympians really only get to be super-famous 25% of the time but still have to live under extreme scrutiny and unrealistic expectations 100% of the time.
On top of that, there’s the issue of financial compensation. Winning Olympic gold is held to be one of the highest honors in the athletic world—a distinction so great that this honor rather than any financial reward is the goal of every Olympic hopeful. This tradition dates back to ancient Greece where Olympians competed for a laurel wreath as a reward more symbolic than material. In modern times, the issue of money has invaded the games since the Olympics are one of the most economically vibrant events in the world—fueling debate about the amateur status of athletes and their fair financial reward. Michael Phelps again serves as a great example because he is one of the greatest athletes in the world. However, because his skill is swimming and not playing baseball, football, or basketball, Phelps won’t see the same sort of dollar signs as pros in mainstream sports. Endorsements seem to be a way around the quagmire of compensating Olympic athletes, so Olympians seeking real dollars these days have to shill for sponsors, capitalizing on their name recognition rather than their world-class abilities.
Regarding this issue, Dwayne Wade recently suggested that he should be paid for his participation in the Olympics, likening it to the NCAA and unpaid student-athletes. Apart from the fact that this flies directly in the face of the whole concept of the Olympics, Wade’s point does make sense from the standpoint of a modern professional athlete. In Wade’s defense, he is putting his body on the line risking injury to compete outside of the NBA, which pays him handsomely. Additionally, Team USA uses his likeness to draw sponsors and inspire fans. However, money isn’t the point of the Olympics. After a helpful PR agent told him this, Wade changed his tune, but in my eyes it still has to be insulting to a talent like Michael Phelps that a guy who makes millions in the NBA wanted more money to play in the arena that Phelps simply owns.
The financial side of things is just a reality of modern life, even in the face of traditional Olympic ideals. Unfortunately, today’s Olympians are caught square in the middle of this dilemma. These sort of fiscal realities are what allows us to go on to eBay and buy an Olympic medal. Because in this day and age, money talks and not even top-tier athletes are immune to hard times. But the Olympics are a special time, a ceremony full of national pageantry, hearkening back to the foundation of Western civilization and celebrating the march of history. Modern materialism and the pursuit of wealth in our industrialized, capitalist world makes it feel obvious that the most talented individuals should be awarded accordingly. But just as NCAA athletes aren’t paid because education is the priority, so Olympic athletes are expected to prize national pride over money. But what do you think? The 2012 games will be here before we know it, so be sure to express how you feel about the expectations we have for our Olympians in the comments.