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Professional athletes hurting Olympics

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- There was a hockey game on last night that you probably didn't watch.

It didn't start until 11:30 p.m. in the East and didn't end until after midnight everywhere.

It was an important game for the teams playing it, the one that will have more to do than any other with their seedings in the medal round at the 2002 Winter Olympics. But it was nothing like when the same two countries played a very different game at a very different time 22 years ago.

When the United States hockey team played Russia in Lake Placid, it wasn't quite the orchestrated drama it was last night. The game wasn't even shown live, played in the afternoon and broadcast on delay in prime time.

But it was as genuine as sports has ever been: Big guy against little guy, American students against Russian soldiers, the kind of match-up so one-sided Vegas doesn't even put out a line for it.

And that upset became the one by which all others were measured in this country, America's greatest Olympic moment.

It will never be like that again.

Not only because American hockey has advanced as far as the former Soviet Union has declined since then. But also because the supposed advancement in Olympic hockey of letting professionals participate has actually retarded the game at the Games.

The quality of play is better. But the quality of excitement isn't even close.

Romance isn't a factor when players have more important teams to go back to after their two-week service to their country is up. And there is no such thing as an underdog when every team is filled with guys who play for a living, the only difference between the U.S. and Russia or Sweden and Canada being whose millionaires have the best timing.

Maybe there is no such thing as pure amateurism at the Olympics anymore. Downhill skiers wear more logos than NASCAR drivers, hawking everything from cell phones to ski wax on their international circuit. Michelle Kwan does commercials for Chevy. All of the athletes have subsidized training and are paid for medal performances by their national Olympic committees.

But the addition of real professionals, from the Dream Team to NHL stars playing in dreamtime, has hurt the Games. Especially in America.

It has taken away the us-against-them dynamic that used to be our rallying cry in the Winter Games, no longer allowing us to dismiss being thumped in the medal count by countries like Norway and Austria by saying we just don't try as hard as they do in these sports.

So then, Saturday was a compounded error, the wrong guys playing at the wrong time.

When the NHL maneuvered to have its players participate in the 1998 Olympics, it was almost entirely so they could have them in place for these Games, in America, with a larger viewing audience.

But Nagano blew up on them when the U.S. team acted like children. And so far, hockey in Salt Lake City has failed to deliver the way it could have because the home team played its first two games after many people had stopped watching for the night.

Last night's game was never going to match the one from 22 before it not in impact and not in atmosphere.

But it could have been an exciting event, the kind of game you wouldn't have minded waiting all day to watch. If, of course, people in half the country didn't have to take afternoon naps to catch it.

I can remember back in 1980, preparing to watch the tape delay of USA-Russia turning off radios, avoiding the evening news, getting a bunch of food ordered up at a friend's house. Then 15 minutes before they dropped the puck, my mother calls and says "isn't it great, they won?''

Funny, but knowing what happened before seeing it didn't take away from that game and never diminished the place it has always held for me.

I only wish somebody could have told me the score before they started playing last night. Then I could have decided if I wanted to stay up to watch what was really just another hockey game between professionals.

Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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