Athletes who hold the promise of greatness must be granted “freedom of excess.” So said Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the Frenchman regarded as the father of the modern Olympic Games.
He meant premiere athletes should be free to train beyond normal boundaries, to push their bodies, hopes and dreams to excessive levels, all in the quest to go faster, higher, stronger (or as they say in Latin, “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” the Olympics motto).
The baron couldn’t have foreseen what Olympic excess would look like in 2016, nearly 80 years after his death. The most egregious example is the proliferation of state-sanctioned doping, which appropriately led to the ban of the Russian track and field team from this summer’s games.
The U.S. also knows a few things about extravagance at the Olympics. Its coddling of star basketball players gives credence to the popular world view that we are a nation of aloof nativists or snobby elitists.
The American men’s and women’s basketball teams are cocooned in an opulent cruise ship off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. It’s called the Silver Cloud, but with a standard weekly cabin rate of $13,000 – complete with spa, cigar lounge and Italian marble bathrooms – it bears little resemblance to the Tacoma waterfront hotel of the same name.
The U.S. hoop stars are set apart from the hundreds of other athletes living together in the Olympic Village. Meanwhile, NBA players who suit up for Australia and Spain’s national teams somehow manage to put up their own shower curtains and put up with their roommates’ smelly socks in the village.
We don’t begrudge the U.S. women basketball players their temporary cruise into the lap of luxury; they’re just along for the ride. The ones driving this yacht are the NBA, a league of multimillionaires, and USA Basketball, the national governing body that pampers the multimillionaires.
Listen closely to Jerry Colangelo, the director of USA Basketball, who had to check himself when telling the New York Times why NBA players need seclusion and extra security in Rio.
“We can’t just throw them in with …” he started to say. (With what, Jerry? The riff raff?)
Then he started over: “Once the International Olympic Committee decided they wanted pro players, to allow pro players to play, we have to protect them. They’re very valuable assets.”
Is it possible they’re also social human beings who might enjoy the community experience? The village might not be squeaky clean utopia that teaches the world to sing in perfect harmony, ala a 1971 Coke commercial, but it does bridge cultural barriers for 16 days.
Argentina soccer superstar Lionel Messi, perhaps the most famous athlete in the world, isn’t competing in Rio, but he stayed in the village during the 2008 Beijing games and claims to have liked being “just another athlete.”
The American NBA elites, on the other hand, have spurned the village dating back to the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team in 1992, when pros were first allowed in the Olympics. Thus began an unprecedented era of dominance.
True to form, this year’s U.S. men’s team crushed Venezuela 113-69 on Monday, a few days after it dismantled China 119-62.
Perhaps USA Basketball fears the games would be more competitive (i.e, less than 40-point margins) if its athletes were exposed to distractions in the village. They might be waylaid by autograph seekers, lose a little sleep and suffer indigestion in the dining hall.
But for fans, this might actually make the games more interesting.
The pleasure of watching a series of international underdogs get whipped by America’s overindulged overdogs is excessively overrated.