Why Would a Major-Sport Athlete Ever Want to Compete in the Olympics?

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Remember Lebron's performance in the 2012 Olympics? No? Steve Christo / Getty Images

The story of Rio 2016, so far, is one of exodus. The list of athletes who have declined to participate is long. A brief rundown includes, among many others, golfers Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy, and Adam Scott (all citing Zika concerns); basketball players LeBron James, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook (injury and rest); and eight of the top 25 men’s tennis players in the world, including Roger Federer, Milos Ranoic, Tomas Berdych, and American John Isner (Zika and scheduling, with the U.S. Open right around the corner).

But the real question is: Why would any major-sport athlete participate in these Olympics? Or any Olympics for that matter?

Let’s start with tennis, which, in fairness, only returned to the Olympics in 1988, after a 54-year absence. With the exception of gold-medal winners Andre Agassi, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray, and silver-medalist Roger Federer, the remaining ten Olympic finalists (which includes journeymen like Tim Mayotte) have won a total of three Grand Slam titles between them. Those were the only major finals any of them reached, and collectively they placed just once at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.

Only one of the players, Russia’s Yevgeny Kafelnikov, was ever ranked number one — for a month, in 1999. The women’s side has fared much better, but for the men, it’s clear that gold was never a priority. There’s only so much adrenaline, so much intensity that can be mustered throughout the year. Take the 2004 Olympics, when Federer was upset in the second round by a hungry, 19-year-old Berdych (currently ranked eighth and also absent in Rio); meanwhile, Federer won that year’s Australian Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open.

Who will remember that the greatest tennis player in history never stood atop the international podium? By the same token, Murray’s victory over Federer before his home crowd in the 2012 London Games is barely an afterthought to Federer’s dominance over the Brit, when it counted: He’s beaten Murray in five out of six Grand Slam finals.

Golf, just introduced this year after a one-off in 1904, may be scratched just as quickly as it arrived. It’s hard to take the Olympic version of the sport all that seriously when the top four players in the world won’t compete. Add to that the bizarre qualifying criteria, which deserves to be quoted directly:

"The top-15 world-ranked players will be eligible for the Olympics, with a limit of four players from a given country. Beyond the top-15, players will be eligible based on the world rankings, with a maximum of two eligible players from each country that does not already have two or more players among the top-15."

That means that because of the withdrawals, Phil Mickelson would technically qualify based on his second-place showing at the Open — but he failed to make the early July cut-off date. What you get is a field of 60 that’s won just four majors and without a player who’s stood atop the rankings. A typical non-major PGA event is stronger.

Basketball, with the exception of the excitement generated by 1992’s Dream Team (after the Soviet Union’s win in 1988), has become a pointless exhibition on par with the All-Star game. (Though everyone would probably like to see DeMar DeRozan pull off that 360 dunk.) When the U.S. fell to bronze in Athens in 2004, it was a minor embarrassment. But what do you expect when you hand the ball to Stephon Marbury, perhaps the most ineffectual point guard of his era? That makes it hard to get away with not really caring, despite the get-up of rookie tandem LeBron and Carmelo. 

The idea that representing your country in the Games is an honor may be a popular notion, and no doubt it’s a trip for young guys like Bulls guard Jimmy Butler. But beyond the novelty factor, there’s no upside for any of these athletes. There’s no Miracle on Ice around the corner, no real stakes; just bad toilets, freshman mattresses, and a record 450,000 “little shirts of Venus,” as condoms are apparently known in the heavily Catholic Brazil (for anyone counting, that’s 42 per athlete; or, two per day).

Honorable or not, the Olympics comes down to, as most other pursuits, money — which these athletes have. It’s a means for non-major-sport athletes to forge careers entirely through endorsements. On his own, Michael Phelps earns a salary of $6,000 to $12,000 a year competing at “pro-level” FINA events, signing autographs, whatever it is swimmers do; he banks $12 million in endorsements, from sponsors like Subway and Under Armour, even after his very public bong hit. Similarly, in a climate in which professional American women soccer players can earn six figures playing their sport (usually, much, much less), the Olympics offers a chance to become a breakout star (while still, criminally, getting only about an eighth of what the men’s team members get).

The Olympics remains an event for amateurs and those poorly compensated professionals for whom it’s the biggest stage (World Cup excepted). We root for them because there’s nothing bigger — their lives have been bent toward this end. They’ve sacrificed any shred of normalcy for a chance to prove they’re the best. For the other guys, it’s rec league stuff. Or in this case, a chance to see Rio like they’ll never want to see it again.