Jim Abbott treasures his memories of marching with the U.S. Olympic team during the 1988 Seoul Games opening ceremony, bunking down in the athletes’ village and pitching the baseball team to victory in the gold-medal game.
“Of all the things I kept from my career, from my life, actually, that gold medal is one of the most cherished,” said Abbott, who was born without a right hand but pitched for a decade with the Angels and other big league teams. “If some catastrophe occurred, it would be one of the first things that I would run for . . . it’s very, very special.”
Not special enough, however, to win Abbott admission to the Beijing Games Olympian Reunion Center that will open this month in a 127-year-old imperial palace. The guest list for the world’s most exclusive athletic club runs to an estimated 100,000 living Olympians -- but Abbott isn’t one of them.
Neither are thousands of other athletes who competed in baseball, taekwondo and other sports contested as demonstration events rather than full-fledged Olympic sports. Nor are the thousands of athletes whose Olympic dreams were dashed by politically driven boycotts.
More than a century after the first modern Olympic Games, the definition of an Olympian “remains one of the great unresolved questions of the Olympic Movement,” said Dick Fosbury, whose “Fosbury Flop” revolutionized the high jump during the 1968 Mexico City Games.
“Ask anyone in the world who watches the Games on television if they know what an Olympian is, and they’ll all nod their heads,” said Fosbury, an Idaho businessman and president of the nonprofit World Olympians Assn., which is chartered by the IOC to represent Olympians’ interests. “From their perspective it’s very simple. But from the Olympian’s perspective, it’s very complex.”
The complexity is driven by the fact that several Olympic organizations -- including the International Olympic Committee, national sports federations, the WOA and national groups that represent Olympians -- have a say in creating and policing the definition.
The debate often is heated, not because of hard-and-fast benefits that accrue to Olympians as much as the obvious pride shared by those admitted to this distinguished cadre of athletes.
“It’s the intrinsic fact that you’re part of a fraternity, and everyone else wants to be part of that exclusive fraternity,” said Willie Banks, who qualified for the 1980 team, competed in the 1984 and 1988 Summer Games and now serves as president of the U.S. Olympians Assn. “It’s as if you went to Vietnam in the First Marine Division and kicked butt. You say, ‘Yeah, I was part of that group. You couldn’t have experienced what I did.’ ”
As with many things Olympian, politics is at the heart of the disagreement. Everyone agrees that an Olympian is someone who participates in the Games -- what’s open to debate is the definition of “participation.”
“You can sum it up by saying that the term ‘Olympian’ is loosely used, and that there is no definition for Olympian,” Banks said. “There is no definition of ‘Olympian’ because the only organization that can officially do it is the IOC and they’ve kept it vague.”
Asked recently for their definitions of “Olympian,” both the U.S. Olympic Committee and the British Olympic Foundation deferred to the IOC, which handed the question off to the federations that oversee Olympic-style sports.
“Each of them have a clear definition of who is a participating athlete,” IOC media director Emmanuelle Moreau said in an e-mail. “As an example, in [soccer], all 18 athletes who have been entered as part of the team are awarded a medal.”
But Anthony Th. Bijkerk, secretary general of the International Society of Olympic Historians, said he recalled that an earlier version of the IOC charter withheld Olympian honors from athletes who did not actually compete.
He also said that a field hockey coach pulled his starters during the 1984 Los Angeles Games so his reserves could qualify under a rule that required actual entry onto the field of play -- not just sitting on an Olympic bench.
Consideration of a play-to-qualify rule during the WOA’s 2003 General Assembly drew heated opposition from an Israeli delegate who countered that such a rule would have stripped the “Olympian” title from athletes who were murdered during the 1972 Munich Games before competing.
The WOA assembly adopted a broader definition that remains in the organization’s constitution: “An Olympian is an athlete who has been accredited to participate in the Olympic Games in a full medal sport.”
As broad as the WOA definition is, Abbott remains on the Olympic sidelines because baseball in 1988 had not yet attained full Olympic status.
“I guess that hurts a little bit,” Abbott said after hearing about the rule from a reporter. “We definitely had an Olympic experience.”
Abbott isn’t completely out in the cold because national Olympian associations are free to craft their own definitions. The Orange County resident, who is now a motivational speaker, was invited to share in the pancake breakfast, barbecue and 1968 Olympic Team tribute held last weekend in the Bay Area by the U.S. Olympians Assn.
“They’re all Olympians to us,” Banks said of demonstration sport athletes and American athletes who were unable to compete in Moscow because of the U.S.-led boycott.
Banks also noted that some Olympians also would open the U.S. Olympians Assn. ranks to officials who referee Olympic contests, as well as coaches and trainers.
“If you want to expand it to as big as it can get, maybe anyone who carried the Olympic Torch should be considered an Olympian,” said John Naber, a former president of the U.S. Olympians Assn. “My point is that there are a lot of gray areas, and the IOC has not been clear in its definition.”
There are some benefits that accrue to athletes who can call themselves Olympians.
WOA-recognized Olympians will enjoy access to 60 guest rooms, two dining areas, a multilingual concierge service and closed-circuit television coverage of the Games at the Olympian Reunion Center in Beijing. Some national associations offer speakers bureaus, career counseling and relief funds for down-and-out Olympians. The U.S. organization sends official, five-ring Olympic flags and letters from the association president to the families of deceased Olympians.
But it is the select nature of the honor that fuels most of the debate, said Olympian Anita DeFrantz, a bronze medal-winning rower for the U.S. in the 1976 Montreal Games, who led a bitter but unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn the U.S. decision to boycott Moscow and is now a senior U.S. member of the IOC.
While DeFrantz acknowledges the pain and frustration among 1980 teammates who never got another chance to compete in the Olympics, she sticks with a narrower definition when it comes to “participation.”
“The IOC keeps the record of those who competed in games,” DeFrantz said. “I am an Olympian because I have competed at the Games. It’s not a perfect situation, because it makes a line where some people think that line shouldn’t be.”
As hard as it is to join this exclusive club -- no matter who’s providing the definition -- it’s almost impossible to get kicked out. The WOA’s membership roster, for example, includes some Olympians who were forced to return medals because of illegal doping.
“Once you’ve competed, you’re always an Olympian,” DeFrantz said. “Even if you dishonor yourself by cheating. Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.”
Abbott, meanwhile, harbors no ill feelings toward the Olympic gatekeepers.
“We were so totally in the moment,” Abbott said of the Olympic experience, including the full nine innings he pitched when the U.S. beat Japan, 5-3, in the gold-medal game. “We were proud that, unlike today, we were all amateurs.
“We wanted to conduct ourselves well, do well and perform well enough for baseball to become an officially sanctioned sport. Which it did.”
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