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Dream Team on Ice?

In 1972, the International Olympic Committee voted to expel Austrian skier Karl Schranz three days before the competition began. His offense: he allowed his name and picture to be used in an advertisement.

Scour the rosters of this year's Olympic Ice Hockey Tournament in Nagano and you'll be hard pressed to find a player who has not committed such an infringement. For the first time in Olympic history, the National Hockey League will suspend its season to allow it players to compete in the Games.

Some are quick to point out that professionals have long since competed in the Winter Olympics. The Canadians and Swedes boycotted the 1968 and 1972 tournaments to protest the Soviet and Czech practice of giving players false job titles that allowed them to train full time. Several Soviet players even admitted receiving payment for their services.

The Spirit and Substance, or the Pit and Prunejuice?
While this may not be the first time "professionals" have competed in the Olympics, in allowing NHL players to compete, the IOC is admitting members of a league far superior to all others in its sport. Following in the wake of the Dream Teams of the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics, the inclusion represents another stage in the movement towards the professionalization of a once exclusively amateur competition.

The 1992 Olympics saw arguably the best basketball team ever assembled take the court in Barcelona. It also witnessed what many in the media and the general public considered to a threat to the substance and the spirit of the competition.

The 1992 US Olympic Team – you may remember them as the Dream Team – featuring the best players from the National Basketball Association, coasted to an easy gold. Their average margin of victory: 47 points.

They played with a take no prisoners mentality, a vicious competitiveness bordering on hatred. We were left with lopsided victories and several thrown elbows.

Puttin'on the Ritz
But it was not simply the on-court dynamic that destroyed the competition. Off the court, the Dream Team acted like spoiled children, sports royalty far too valuable to associate with the "rabble". They stayed in a posh, $900 a night hotel, scoffing at the relatively spartan Olympic Village, where the rest of the world's finest athletes resided.

His Airness, Michael Jordan, skipped the opening ceremonies claiming that he had "done that" already in 1984. He fit in basketball games between rounds of golf, shoe endorsement conferences, and visits to local casinos. Protected by bodyguards and mobbed by fans, the NBA elitists strutted through Barcelona like rock stars, trash talking opponents with "take your beating like a man" messages.

Commercial interest reared its head like never before when Jordan refused to wear the official team warm-up suit. It was provided by Reebok and Mike, as we all know, is a Nike man.

Dream Team, Too
The Atlanta Olympics of 1996 saw a second "Dream Team" coast to an easy gold. It also a saw a competition marked by many of the ills of its predecessor.

The US team again snubbed the communal ethic of the Olympic Village, preferring to reside at the Omni, where they complained about the room service. The rhetoric, while not as severe as in 1992, was at best condescending. And while the team featured such superstars as Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippin, and Reggie Miller, the novelty of the Dream Team enterprise had faded and with it, public interest.

No Sake for Pavel
But does the inclusion of NHL players in the Winter Olympics doom the hockey competition to the same fate as its basketball counterpart? Fortunately, the answer is no.

True, the NHL and the NBA are both the premiere leagues in their respective sports. However, unlike the NBA, the rosters of the NHL are peppered with international stars. Instead of one Dream Team, there will be six – the USA, Russia, Canada, Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Finland – all of which have been pre-selected for the championship round. They will be joined by two teams that survive a preliminary round.

These are the perennial "powers that be" in world hockey; the Nagano tournament will roughly reflect the power dynamic that existed prior to the change. Plus, with talent spread this evenly, it is unlikely that you'll find Wayne Gretzky and Pavel Bure splitting a bottle of hot sake the night before a game. No team can afford to take the games lightly.

That is not to say sentiments will be hostile. While a tad pugnacious on the ice, hockey players tend to be gentler than their basketball counterparts outside the arena. They are public figures and heroes to many, but they are spared the God-like worship of Jordan and Barkley. When the members of the tournament take off their pads, they'll head to the Olympic Village with their fellow athletes and share a meal in the communal cafeteria.

Written by Steven Shaklan

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