Let's be totally open about the Olympics, which would be an Olympic first. It may be mildly surprising to learn that the best athletes in the world do not always participate in the games. Sometimes, even the best amateur athletes do not participate. Frequently, those who do compete do not abide by the same rules.
For instance, the games purport to be the essence of amateurism, featuring the purist athletes on the planet, men and women driven by nothing beyond the compulsions of sport. Yet it is a reality of Olympic life that a United States biathlete is infinitely more of an amateur than an Austrian downhiller is.
How is that possible?
Rule 26 -- the eligibility code -- states that an athlete must abide by the rules of the International Olympic Committee -- and also the rules of his or her international federation, "even if the federation's rules are more strict than those of the IOC."
The competitor also must "not have received any financial rewards or material benefit in connection with his or her sports participation, except as permitted in the by-laws to this rule."
A translation seems in order. The rules of each federation are quite different. What constitutes an amateur in, say, judo might be considered wildly professional in speed skating.
Slowly, the IOC is moving in the direction it ought to be -- toward a time when all athletes, amateur and pro, are eligible for the games. If a bulky fellow can earn a few dollars heaving the javelin, let him. And let him throw his javelin in the Olympics, too. If the world suddenly beats a path to luge, don't reward everybody except the people the customers pay to watch.
Eliminate the most Consistent, if overlooked, Olympic theme -- hypocrisy. Bring the money exchanges above the table.
The IOC's drift toward logic reflects changes in social attitudes that existed as long ago as the turn of century, and the IOC's willingness to compromise long-standing principles, however silly, to keep the Olympics alive.
One of the most liberal views of amateurism came from the very fellow who revived the Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin. Listen to what he was writing during the early 1900s:
"Sports to me was a religion, with church, dogmas, services and so on, but especially a religious feeling, and I found it just as childish to relate all that to the fact that an athlete had received half-a-crown, as declaring outright that the parish verger was of necessity an unbeliever because he was paid to serve in the sanctuary."
So Coubertin would be for Wilt Chamberlain playing Olympic basketball regardless of how much money he was being paid. He was for open Olympics before the revival began, in 1896, but willing to bend far enough to satisfy the British at first and later the amateur's amateur, the late Avery Brundage.
The code of amateurism in the late 19th century came from England -- and mirrored the notion that sport was a gentleman's game, a rich man's exercise. Therefore, one ceased to be an amateur:
By accepting a cash prize:
By competing against a professional;
By receiving a salary as a teacher or instructor of physical exercise, or
By taking part in competition open to all comers.
That certainly limited the field. Gradually, this elitist idea began to fall from favor. The field hands also were allowed to run and jump in their underwear. And blacks. And women.
The sporting evolution still has stopped short of open Olympics. But it has come far enough to bless covert and even obvious subsidization, to let the United States and the Soviets compete by allowing amateurs to "accept academic and technical scholarships."
The amendments to rule 26 also allow an amateur to accept, within the rules of each federation, food and lodging, transportation, pocket money for incidental expenses, insurance, equipment and clothing, medical treatment and compensation for wages lost during training and participation.
That last addition, known as broken-time payments, is especially useful to U.S. athletes, whose careers often ended when their scholarships ran out, or when they were forced to work for a living.
Still, while these rules apply to all amateurs, all amateurs do not benefit from them. The federation of a popular sport may be able to give the athlete everything to which is entitled; the federation of an obscure sport may not be able to provide anything.
And some federations either are unable to ferret out under-the-table payments to athletes by manufacturers or do not bother to look. European skiers are especially adept at cash and carry.
The new rules also create new inconsistencies. For instance, anyone paid as a coach cannot compete in the Olympics. Yet Frank Shorter can use his reputation to start a highly profitable, track-related business and still be considered an amateur.
Much of the debate about amateurism and the Olympics -- their obvious commercialism and inequities among sports and athletes -- has always centered on the winter games, which began in 1924.
Brundage long considered the winter games little more than a collection of sham-amateur skiers and a women figure skaters whose mission in life was to sign a million-dollar contract 14 minutes after accepting a gold medal.
He also thought the hosts were primarily interested in promoting their facilities for potential tourists.
He was right on some things; but he also showed himself to be a zealot, with archaic 19th-century ideas.
The IOC's next goal should be to make the games completely honest and sensible. The President's Commission on Olympic Sports suggested several years ago that athletes be considered amateur if they are paid for anything except competing in their event.
In other words, Skeets Nehemiah could earn a living for all his track-related skills, but could not be paid to run the hurdles. Why not carry that to the logical conclusion? Why not knock down that final barrier?