SEARCH 2000 Games

Wednesday, August 2, 2000
When a bunk in Sydney won't do

By JIM LITKE -- Associated Press

 A dozen years ago, Olympic kingpin Juan Antonio Samaranch wanted pros for his games in the worst way. More and more, that's exactly what he's getting.

 On Tuesday, Pete Sampras told the U.S. Tennis Association not to reserve a bunk for him in Sydney. Sampras didn't say he was hurt, just that he wasn't going.

 With that, the freshly crowned prince of Wimbledon joined a growing exodus of the rich and famous to the Olympic sideline. Already there or close to withdrawing were tennis pinup girl Anna Kournikova, NBA big men Tim Duncan and Vlade Divac, European 200-meter champion Doug Walker of Scotland and a few more.

 Pros backing out of commitments is an old story, but relatively new to the Olympics. When Samaranch threw the doors open to swelled heads at Seoul in 1988, he should have known oversized problems would follow.

 A few winters ago, it meant cleaning up after some U.S. athletes played late-night hockey with the hosts' furniture. This summer, it will mean explaining why some stars didn't bother to show up or break anything at all.

 Sampras had an excuse, of course. Being pros, they all did. What's changed is that not everyone one felt compelled to make up a good one. If the TV audience does likewise, Olympic fever could take on a new meaning.

 The tennis stars noted the games begin right after the U.S. Open ends, and that traveling halfway around the world to stay in substandard accommodations (by LaCosta standards, anyway) and play the same crowd in a tournament that pays nothing and bars sponsors' logos is a waste of their valuable time and money.

 Or, as Russian Tennis Federation vice president Alexei Selivanenko said of Kournikova, "the interests of the Olympic Games and the interests of the tennis player differ."

 And so, Selivanenko added, "Her career considerations come first."

 Like we didn't know that.

 Duncan's possible pullout, though, is a little more disturbing. He's no prima donna. Duncan does have a well-documented fear of sharks, he's coming off knee surgery and the gold-medal game Oct. 1 is only days before the Spurs want him in training camp. On the other hand, with the Dream Team the United States is sending, the only heavy lifting all trip would come during the awards presentation.

 And still, Duncan could be on the verge of saying no.

 Divac, meanwhile, offered no excuse at all. He played for his national team both in the 1988 and 1996 Games, but this time told Yugoslav officials Olympic training was too long and he wants to spend time with his family.

 The measure of much how Samaranch's grip has slipped will come with a head count of stars when the torch is ignited six weeks from now. It used to be turning down an Olympic invitation was unthinkable, even (maybe especially) for a professional.

 Michael Jordan, as stubborn an athlete as ever lived, succumbed to public pressure just eight years ago and did his second tour of Olympic duty with Dream Team I to regain the basketball gold medal a team of U.S. collegians couldn't bring home in 1988. This time, the Lakers' Kobe Bryant turned down a Dream Team spot to get married.

 The five-ring franchise isn't what it used to be. Athletes once sacrificed everything to peak a few days in late summer. They flew military transports, swore off good food and a comfortable bed for weeks -- and for nothing more substantial than the honor of representing their country. Back then, the Big Red machine referred to more than the mid-1970s baseball dynasty in Cincinnati and conflicts between nations broke out more than once every four years.

 The days between Olympics pass more quietly, and there's much to be grateful for in that. But the "Miracle on Ice" at the Lake Placid Games in 1980 is remembered as the sporting highlight of a century because the key game featured a team of real U.S. amateurs beating cold-blooded Soviet hockey pros. The next "Miracle on Ice" will be the day NHL players agree to donate their cut of merchandising sales to an approved U.N. charity.

 Besides, the idea of pros playing the same games at the Olympics they do back home hasn't been a rousing success. The idea generated maximum buzz when the Dream Team I reduced the rest of the world to a series of photo opportunities. But an increasingly crowded international sports calendar has made it tougher for each subsequent Olympics to rise above the clutter.

 If the current trend continues, the games will have to turn the trick with fewer and fewer stars each time helping out. Unless you count the whiners.

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