Dream sequence: Dunk hoops, put away tennis

September 17, 2000|By John Eisenberg

SYDNEY, Australia - As soon as the floor was opened for questions, a Japanese reporter got right down to business:

"Would you rather win an Olympic gold medal or an NBA championship?" he asked Gary Payton and the rest of the superstars who make up the U.S. men's basketball team.

Sitting on a glittering dais next to Alonzo Mourning and down from Kevin Garnett, Payton laughed. Paused. Knew he couldn't hide.

"A lot of the guys up here would rather win an NBA championship," he said. "But this is a substitute."

A consolation prize. Miss Congeniality.

That's the Olympics? Not in a right-thinking world.

If the Olympic decision-makers are so worried about the sprawling size of the Summer Games, why not just jettison the events in which winning a gold medal is a secondary career goal at best for the athletes, a convenient afterthought more than an all-consuming passion?

That's what Olympic basketball has become with NBA stars involved. Olympic tennis and soccer, too.

They're just playpens for high-profile pros who usually have better things to do, an easy chance for the athletes who already have it all to get a little more, as if they need it.

Yawn.

Give me the archers and weightlifters who have dreamed of this moment for a lifetime. Give me the single scullers gliding across the water with years of sweat poured into making these few minutes count.

Give me the swimmers and gymnasts for whom this is the Super Bowl, only bigger, because they won't get another shot for four years.

That's the Olympics, not guys with $126 million contracts "graciously" taking a few weeks out of their off-seasons before getting back to what counts.

Not Venus Williams trying to win a gold medal before coming down from the more desired high of winning a U.S. Open title.

Not an additional, extraneous forum for some big names who already get enough attention and should cede the Games to those who deserve the unique limelight.

"It's pretty obvious that those [basketball] guys go down [to Australia] to go on vacation," said U.S. swimmer Tom Dolan, a likely gold medalist here. "That's great for them; it must be nice. The rest of us, the peasants in the sports world on the bottom of the ladder, we appreciate what it means."

Money isn't the issue, mind you. The Games are now better off as a professional event with a leveled playing field and the old, shameful, under-the-table shenanigans rendered obsolete. Payton and his teammates are no different from the many athletes from around the world who have cashed in on their Olympic glory.

And make no mistake, the money they make won't keep Payton and his teammates from playing hard in Sydney, not that they need to play hard to win the gold over a collection of outmatched opponents.

No, more than the money, the issue is about athletes attaching the proper importance to the Games - the level of importance that, let's face it, made the Games the world's greatest sporting event in the first place.

"The Olympics are not about how much money people are making, or who has what endorsement, or any of the things you see, unfortunately, in professional sports today," Dolan said. "That's one of the reasons everyday people relate so well to the Olympics. That's something I've always loved about the Olympics."

Sure, the basketball and tennis stars and soccer stars such as Brazil's Ronaldo also are here because they want to represent their countries and win gold medals. A few appearance fees were thrown in, no doubt. But no one is being disingenuous.

Still, the passion and commitment obviously is watered down when the Games aren't the top priority, when winning medals isn't nearly as important as winning league and individual titles back home, or in the case of the basketball players, collecting more endorsements.

That's not what viewers want from the Olympics, quite simply.

It's no coincidence basketball's "Dream Team" keeps sinking as an attraction, from No. 1 in 1992 to No. 5 at best in 1996 to somewhere below that this year.

Is anyone really looking forward to watching the team play?

For that matter, does anyone remember a single game any Dream Team has played since they became a reality in 1992?

Give me the Olympic softball players hungering for gold and attention any day.

For that matter, give me Rick Krivda and the rest of the American minor-leaguers trying to make a mark and upset Cuba in baseball.

The International Olympic Committee isn't going to do a thing about any of this, of course. The basketball and tennis stars add value to the Olympic package sold to NBC, which, not coincidentally, also broadcasts NBA games.

Here's one suggestion, for what it's worth:

Put an age limit on the basketball competition, 23 and under. Level the playing field and bring back the youthful exuberance.

Do away entirely with the tennis competition, which has all the charm of an obscure, mid-level ATP Tour stop.

And soccer? It already has the 23-year-old age limit. Not much you can do.

That won't cut much out of an Olympic agenda with too much fat, but it would cut down on the number of Olympians who are just slumming, a trend the Games could do without.

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