With rules on pay eased, more U.S. athletes making more Olympic appearances
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Gymnastics, as most Americans know it, leaped into our living rooms in the summer of 1976.
A Romanian princess, barely tall enough to see over the balance beam, showed us what Olympic perfection can be.
Nadia Comaneci was 14 years old.
At those same Montreal Games, Nancy Lieberman was a member of the U.S. women's basketball team. Lieberman had just turned 18.
Shirley Babashoff, expected to lead America's female swimmers to the medals stand, was the team's veteran -- at the wise old age of 19.
Teenagers can still readily be found on the U.S. rosters at the London Olympic Games. But in almost every sport, women's gymnastics included, the old Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius -- Swifter, Higher, Stronger -- is being amended to include Antiquus.
The average age of a U.S. competitor at the 1976 Montreal Olympics was 24. Thirty-two years later in Beijing, that average had risen to 26.8.
The list included 21 athletes who were 40 years old or more. Three of them were competing in their fifth Olympic Games. Twelve were in their fourth Olympics.
Twelve U.S. Olympians in 2008 were mothers. One, sailor John Dane III, was a grandfather.
This year's U.S. roster includes Keli Smith Puzo, a 33-year-old striker on the field hockey team and mother of two.
"You can play pickup soccer when you're 40, but you can't play at this level forever," Smith Puzo told The Baltimore Sun. "So just knowing that it's going to end at some point brings you back to the reality that you might as well enjoy it while you still can."
Once upon a time, the Olympic calendar hovered over amateur athletes like a birth curse. The Olympics came only once every four years, and an athlete was either at prime Olympic age, or he or she wasn't.
The shackles of Olympic amateurism and idealism had much to do with that. Every four years, someone recounts the saga of Jim Thorpe, who was stripped of his 1912 Olympic decathlon and pentathlon gold medals because he had played semi-professional baseball. Amateurism was an underlying theme in the Academy Award-winning movie "Chariots of Fire," whose co-protagonist, Harold Abrahams, employed a professional coach.
But in the 1980s, behind the push of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee began to relax its rules on athletes being paid. By 1991, the Olympic Charter had rewritten Rule 26, defining strict amateurism, and left it up to individual sports' federations to determine who can compete in the Games.
In 2000, the U.S. Olympic Committee began paying qualifying athletes for their living and training expenses. World-class competitors can be eligible for group medical insurance. Olympic medal winners can receive performance bonuses.
Olympians can now be paid for public speaking appearances and for endorsing products. Swimmer Michael Phelps, who will try this summer to add to his 14 Olympic gold medals, has lucrative sponsorship deals with, among others, Hilton, Subway and Omega.
High hurdler Lolo Jones, 29, has endorsement contracts with Asics, Oakley, British Petroleum and Red Bull, though she has yet to win an Olympic medal. Jones was a solid favorite to win the gold medal in Beijing, but she crashed into the next-to-last hurdle in the 110-meter final and finished without a medal. Yet Jones, like dozens of others, was able to extend her Olympic career, where generations of Olympians before her could not.
Citius. Altius. Fortius. Antiquus.
Olympians not only are older these days, they're more familiar. The sponsorship deals have made familiar faces of the likes of soccer's Hope Solo and Abby Wambach and beach volleyballers Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.
Familiar faces have meant more media interest which, in turn, has led to increased television rights fees for the IOC. Samaranch's dream of monetizing the Olympics has more than come true.
The list of U.S. Olympic retreads in London figures to be a long one, beginning with 25-year-old Phelps in swimming and continuing through flyweight Rau'shee Warren, also 25, who will be boxing in his third Olympic Games.
May-Treanor and Walsh, 34 and 33, respectively, will be back to try for their third consecutive gold medal in beach volleyball.
The list of veteran U.S. Olympians, meanwhile, also will include long-distance runner Bernard Lagat, 37; the taekwondo family of Steven and Diana Lopez, 33 and 28, respectively; diver Troy Dumais, 32; shooting's Kim Rhode, 32; and triathlete Hunter Kemper, 36.
Swimmer Brendan Hansen, 30, makes a return after winning gold medals in 2004 and 2008. Cycling's Sarah Hammer, embroiled in controversy for her surgical mask incident in Beijing, will be an Olympic veteran at 28 in London. And volleyballer Logan Tom will be a three-time Olympian at age 31.
Gone are the days, it seems, when the Olympic calendar smiled upon athletes just once.
Swifter. Higher. Stronger. Older.
If you see familiar faces on TV this summer from London, it's not a coincidence.
First Published July 8, 2012 12:00 am