The London Olympics will mark the 20th Anniversary of basketball's "Dream Team," the greatest assembly of talent on one team in the history of basketball, or arguably any sport. Unfortunately, the same event symbolizes the end of a much more important dream, the Olympic Dream.
The modern Olympic Games were introduced in 1896, founded as an amateur competition to celebrate the ideals of sports and encourage peace among the nations of the world. While not perfect, for many decades the Olympics strove to adhere to those ideals.
It was a dream of course, because all nations and all individuals do not have the same resources and opportunities to compete. In addition, while some events focus on universal skills (track and field, for example), others are more subject to cultural and environmental biases. Who can forget the Jamaican Bobsled Team? While no doubt fine athletes and fun to watch, they didn't present a serious threat to the domination of the sport by the Germans and the Swiss.
Some of the greatest moments in Olympic history have been born of these inequalities. In 1960, the original "Miracle on Ice" (reprised in 1980) represented the coming of age of U.S. hockey, a sport previously dominated by Canada and the USSR.
Prior to 1968, the United States completely dominated Olympic Basketball, winning the first seven gold medals. In fact, until 1968 the US team hadn't lost even a single game, an impressive accomplishment even allowing for the fact that basketball was a home-grown sport developed in the U.S. Most impressively, this streak was achieved entirely by amateur collegiate players.
Then in 1972 the U.S. team was defeated by the USSR. Notwithstanding the controversial ending of the final game, it was one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history. Instead of celebrating (or at least respecting) the accomplishment of the Russian team our national psyche was pierced. Cries that Eastern Block countries sent 'professional' athletes to the Olympics intensified, and the die was cast for the end of the dream of the modern Olympic Games.
The transformation of the Olympics from an amateur to professional competition was accelerated, and in the 1980's the reference to amateur athletes was deleted from the Olympic rules. Commercialization followed, with the first corporate sponsorships introduced in the 1984 Los Angeles games.
NBA players joined the games in 1992, and the Dream Team was born. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton et al demolished their opponents by an average of 44 points. Order was restored to the universe, and our collective national insecurity was salved. The U.S. was No. 1 after all!
Recently, Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade completed the Olympic transition by stating their view that NBA players should be paid to play on the U.S. national team.
Next week, NBA TV will air a documentary celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team. But was the Dream Team and all it symbolized a triumph or a tragedy? Perhaps we should be asking what has been forever lost in this transformation of the Olympic ideal? Can we ever have a 'Miracle on Ice' again? Shouldn't professional competitions be left to the likes of the World Cup?
I'd much rather see the Olympics return to its vision of an amateur competition celebrating the ideals of sport and encouraging peace and understanding among the nations of the world. Isn't that what made it unique in the first place? I'd much prefer to see the U.S. win an occasional gold meal with true amateurs rather than dominate with the best athletes money can buy.
Now that would be a dream worth celebrating.