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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 20-Aug-2008

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 847

Paying the price for an athlete’s love for sale


The sky is murky, the cheer undetectable, the town sanitised within an inch of its life, but one thing the Beijing Olympics clarify beyond doubt is the need to recall from exile the old idea of the amateur.

For most people these days “amateur” implies incompetence. To be called amateurish is a gross insult, the very opposite of “professional”, which we take to mean skilled, reliable and efficient.

Of Channel Seven’s excruciatingly low-rent Olympic coverage, for example, toddhunt6 blogged: “Stick with what you do best … Pack of sporting AMATURES [sic].” The blogosphere is often offered as evidence of the mass amateurisation of publishing. And not in a good way.

But such talk misunderstands the degree to which both amateur and professional have, as ideas, been corrupted.

Amateur, properly speaking, means lover. Amo, amas, amat-eur. The amateur does it for love. Professional, on the other hand, which used to imply membership of a profession or guild with its own, protected skill set and enforced ethical code, now means, simply, paid. Chook breeding, fishing, rocket science: what amateurs do for love, professionals do for money.

And yet we, whose ethical standards show direct lineage from the ancient texts of the Harvard Business School, presume the dollar differential to mean that professionals do it better. That anyone worth having is worth paying – handsomely. And, conversely, that if you don’t pay, only fools and incompetents will come to your door. Pay peanuts, get monkeys, all that.

The evidence, however, is otherwise. It’s not just the great list of history-shaping amateur scientists, from Gregor Mendel to Michael Faraday to Arthur C. Clarke (who in 1945 first proposed the use of geostationary satellites as communications devices). And not just Telstra, sharing $50 million a year between its top eight execs and still unable to send you a bill that makes sense, with or without legal advice. The professional soldier differs little from the mercenary. The professional politician is simply someone who has never experienced anything else, anything real. The professional footballer plays for Australia this week, France next. No worries. What did we expect?

But the most glaring example of amateur excellence undermined by professionalism is, of course, the Olympics. So frantically are today’s athletes chasing the sponsorship dollar that the most compelling Olympic sprint is now the indoor drug pursuit, a hot-breathed, white-coated one-on-one between the designers and the testers.

And then there’s the media circus, with Channel Seven’s Olympic coverage so bound hand and foot by the will to profit that you can get RSI just from muting the ads every 4.62 minutes, while the content gap needs a three decimal-place digital stop clock just to be sure it exists.

So desperate is Seven’s ratings chase that we see every Ozzie gold a hundred times – the infinite replay of Stephanie Rice, always with another bad pun and another fabulous smile – while Australian failures (should there be such an occurrence, God forbid) are gently, sympathetically glossed over, stopping just long enough to wonder what drug the rotten (foreign) winner must have been on.

And yet, when it comes to the dastardly foreigner, the losses are what’s endlessly replayed, especially the humiliating ones. Like that heartbreaking sequence, sniggeringly run and rerun by Seven, along with “funny” captions of a distinctly undergrad flavour, showing the Colombian weightlifter Oscar Figueroa’s agonising doggedness that ended, well before bedtime, in tears.

And if that’s not tacky enough, there’s the yet more excruciating Yum Cha. It’s not just poor old Sonia Kruger, confiding that her favourite sport is Greco-Roman wrestling and wondering aloud whether 48-kilogram weightlifting means the weights or the lifters. It’s not even that her gaffes, now legendary, are said to represent a deliberate, scripted dumbing down.

More cringeworthy still is the way Yum Cha seems to think the white Australia policy still holds. The patronising coolie hats, the face-pulling tea tastings meant to imply the finest, dollar-a-gram oolong tastes excremental, the schoolyard jokes about fortune cookies, Chinks and “increment weather”.

None of which would matter, I suppose, if there was a choice. If you could flip to something mildly intelligent or objective by way of Olympic coverage. But you can’t. Why not? Because the International Olympic Committee has it all sewn up in a big hairy bag called ambush marketing.

The committee’s sale of rights to the highest (if dumbest) bidder prevents any other broadcasts from any Olympic venue, except official press conferences, and even then requires a half-hour delay. A subdeal silences radio, outside 2GB.

Imagine if the Olympic spirit applied. If potential Olympic broadcasters, like Olympic athletes, had to prove performance. How would performance be measured? Could we apply, perhaps, a learned panel, as in gymnastics? What if commentary had to be fair, smart or insightful? If meanness and jingoism were banned? If advertising had to be clever, chic or public-spirited? What then?

Then maybe the ghastly Seven could be stopped before it renames its top-rating morning show Sun Lies.


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