Olympic swimming, for instance, allows pros. So does track and field. Boxing does not. Less-prominent sports have no rules against professionals, but it can be difficult for those professionals to support themselves as they train.
On Thursday night, 80,203 fans filled historic Wembley Stadium here to watch the U.S. beat Japan for the gold medal in women’s soccer, the conclusion of a tournament that included all of the best players in the world. On Saturday, another sold-out crowd came to watch Brazil face Mexico at Wembley, the conclusion of a tournament which the best players watched from afar, because each roster consisted of players age 23 or under, save for three exceptions who could be of any age.
“It’d be nice to have the best players here,” said Tom Cleverley, a midfielder for Britain’s entry in the men’s soccer tournament. “But we have other things coming up that are more important to more people,” a reference to the English Premier League, in which Cleverley is a member of Manchester United.
Different sets of rules
The Olympics, it turns out, have only so much control over Olympic sports. Each sport’s international governing body — the International Federation of Association Football for soccer, the International Basketball Federation for basketball, etc. — decides who can compete in its sport at the Olympics and in other international competitions.
USA Swimming, which has fielded perhaps the most successful American program dating from the 2004 Games in Athens, supports everyone from 22-time medalist Michael Phelps to 15-year-old Katie Ledecky, the Bethesda high schooler who won her first gold here at her first Games. But even within that structure — in which athletes can and do receive endorsement contracts — there are struggles.
Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old high school student, could command hundreds of thousands of dollars after she won five medals here. But Franklin wants to swim collegiately, and the NCAA — yet another organization that has its fingers on the Olympics, albeit from afar — won’t allow pros to compete.
Saturday, Franklin said her experience in London has left her torn on how to proceed.
“I’ve been able to see the benefits [of] how people get these sponsorships and what it’s like for them and how much fun they’re having, and kind of wanting that and wanting to be part of it, and having it be so hard to turn it down,” she said. “But it’s also helped me in being part of such an incredible team . . . being on the closest team I’ve ever been on and knowing that that’s exactly what college is going to be like.”