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Many are left out of 'Olympian' club

Debate continues over a definition that excludes demonstration events, boycott-affected athletes.

August 02, 2008|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

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."

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