The International Olympic Committee's executive board yesterday agreed to permit professional hockey players under the age of 23 to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta.
The IOC board, meeting in Calgary, also said that professional soccer and tennis players under the age of 23 would be eligible for the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, South Korea. Professionals in other sports could be allowed into the Olympics by 1992, an IOC official added.
The executive board's decision still has to be ratified by the IOC congress, which will meet this summer.
IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch scheduled a press conference last night in Calgary to discuss yesterday's developments.
Most of the current top young NHL stars will be too old to compete in 1988, including Bobby Carpenter of the Washington Capitals, who has scored more goals in one season than any U.S. native in NHL history, and Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers, the league's most valuable player.
Those who would be eligible include 19-year-old rookie star Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who would be able to play to represent Canada, and Buffalo goalie Tom Barrasso, last season's NHL rookie of the year and a native of Boston, who would be 22 and able to play for the U.S. team.
However, there was uncertainty yesterday whether NHL teams would give their players time off to compete.
Among U.S. tennis players who might be able to play in Seoul if tennis were opened up would be Kathy Rinaldi amd Aaron Krickstein. When tennis was a demonstration sport at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, pros under the age of 20 were able to compete.
A spokesman for the North American Soccer League said no active U.S. player in the NASL or Major Indoor Soccer League would qualify for the 1988 Games because they would be too old. He said the U.S. junior national team likely would form the nucleus of the U.S. Olympic team in 1988.
The board's decision stemmed from a request by the International Ice Hockey Federation for the IOC to allow professionals under the age of 23 to compete in the Games.
First reaction among National Hockey League players was mixed.
Dave Christian, Washington Capitals' center and a member of the Olympic gold-medal winning U.S. team of 1980, pointed to the impracticality of such a move, citing players' NHL contracts.
"I don't know if many teams are going to be willing to allow players to take that year and play," he said. "There are so many things that can happen to you, especially injury."
Christian defended the idea of having a pure amateur U.S. team competing against even obvious professional teams in the Olympics, noting the drama the underdog gold medalists created in 1980.
"I'd like to see it stay the same," he said. "I played when we were amateurs, so to speak. When you argue that (other teams being pro), you're arguing ways of life.
"The fact is, there was something great about that 1980 team. It's only happened twice, in 1980 and 1960."
Those two gold-medal efforts were major upsets in light of widespread professionalism on competing teams. In countries such as the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, team members are supported by the state and concentrate on playing hockey full time.
An NHL spokesman, saying the decision caught the league by surprise, had no immediate comment.
Sam Simpson, director of operations for the NHL Players' Association, cited the difficulty in freeing players to compete in the Olympics in the midst of the NHL season.
"I think the toughest thing would be for the clubs to agree to release players in February down the homestretch of the season," Simpson said.
But James Patrick, a defenseman for the New York Rangers who played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team, applauded the decision.
"Boy, that really changes things," Patrick said. "It finally makes it fair, considering that the Russians, Swedes, Czechs and everyone else but the USA and Canada are all pro anyway."
Patrick, 21, who would not qualify for Calgary in 1988, added, "You could argue that we were the last true amateurs, playing against the best pros in the world. But I think the amateur mystique had been blown away ever since skiers started making a million dollars."
An official with the ABAUSA, the U.S. amateur governing body for basketball, said yesterday that that group has discussed the possibility of pushing for a similar decision enabling certain U.S. professional basketball players to be eligible for the Olympics. But the official said the ABAUSA is not close to a decision one way or the other.
He added that the possibility of U.S. pro basketball players taking part in the Olympics probably would draw stiff resistance from other nations, given U.S. dominance already.