Tuesday, February 12, 2013

As Wrestling Leaves the Olympics, Swimming Sighs Relief

Today, many people in the domestic swimming world are discussing the IOC's decision to cut wrestling from the Olympic program. As Braden Keith writes for Swimswam, this is a good thing for swimming. Is it sad that "not getting cut" passes for good news in swimming? Yes! Is it absolutely heartbreaking to see a sport whose decline on the NCAA level has made the recent cuts in men's swimming seem like a minor setback take another hit like this? Absolutely. Is the way the decision came to pass extremely unsettling for the sports that were saved? I think you know the answer.

Swimming survived, because as Keith puts it, it is a "cash cow". Every four years the otherwise low profile international sport moves to the forefront for eight days and lines the pocket of IOC plutocrats. It's remarkably uncontroversial within swimming circles that this happens. Stakeholders are generally thankful for the eight day popularity boost and meager windfall they can receive. It's better than nothing, which most elite athletes get between Olympiads.

People outside the sport see it for what it is: a wholesale fleecing of our most elite athletes. Yes, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps made some big bucks off their athletic prowess. Yet, their take was probably only a meager share of the money created by Swimming at the Olympics. It was a point that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made on his blog last spring. His purpose was defending Dwyane Wade, who stated flatly what is absolutely true, that he and his teammates should be compensated for their participation in the Olympics.

Public reaction to Wade's comments was generally negative. How could he be so selfish? Wasn't the honor of representing his country enough? These are straw men arguments. The point is that there is a lot of money in the Olympics, and very little of it goes to the performers. The London Olympics, for instance, quoted 2.4 Billion dollars in revenue. Consider that one of the major US sports leagues, the NBA, recently resolved a labor dispute by getting players to reduce their guaranteed share of revenue (in this case technically Basketball Related Income) from 57% to 51%. Of that 2.4 billion, 659 million was in ticket revenues alone. Can you imagine a world in which the athletes were actually payed out half of that from the Olympic coffers.

Yet they are not, primarily because the IOC directly paying athletes is the final stand of "amateurism" in Olympic sport. Amateurism, in this case as well as the NCAA, is not truly about preserving the purity of competition. It's mainly about guaranteeing that a select few suits at the top get very wealthy on the backs of young athletes.

So where does this leave wrestling? In the fight to save collegiate swimming programs, aquatic supporters have often cited how athletic departments are cutting a popular Olympic sport. Wrestling proponents can no longer make that claim, and swimming has been put on further notice that it is far from safe.

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