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Couch: Did the iconic 1992 basketball 'Dream Team' end our Olympic dreams?

Op-ed
Members of the 1992 Team USA Dream Team included (from left) Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Clyde Drexler at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

One of the most popular songs from the rap group Wu-Tang Clan explains what's happening to the Olympics in particular and sports in general.

"C.R.E.A.M." It's an acronym for "cash rules everything around me." In the world of sports, the acronym means "cash ruins everything around me."

Money ruined the Olympics. It's in the process of ruining college sports, too. It's already weakened our professional games, prioritizing the individual ahead of the team.

The Olympics used to be played by "amateurs" pursuing glory for their country for no pay. It was about nobility, fair play, and avoiding the vagaries of big money. Amateurism was never perfect. But amateurism worked, especially as a marketing ploy. We loved the Olympic Games. We loved the pageantry, the nationalism, the sacrifice for your country's honor, the role the Games' played in combating racial bigotry and promoting diversity and unity.

And all of that was fine and good in theory until the U.S. basketball team flopped in the 1988 Seoul Games, taking the bronze medal for its worst performance ever.

So the U.S. created the Dream Team four years later of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird. The Dream Team won every game in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics by at least 32 points, sending a message about American dominance in an American sport: There is just one superpower in basketball.

They did so well that we still feel it today at the Tokyo Olympics in so many ways. You see it in Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Novak Djokovic, and maybe the U.S. men's basketball team, too. The Dream Team showed the world what basketball can be, which started the sport's international boom. We're seeing one minor side effect, though:

The Dream Team killed the Olympics.

That might be a bit of an overstatement. There was timing involved, too. And greed. Lots of greed. The International Olympic Committee started to back off its ideal of purity when TV dollars started to add up. And the TV dollars would grow in multiples if famous professional athletes could be pre-packaged and sold in advance of the Games.

So professionals were finally allowed in the Olympics in 1988. At that point, the Olympics had dipped its toe in the waters of professionalism. The Dream Team was a toe, a leg, a body, and an entire neighborhood.

It worked so well, and made the Olympics so big. With the Dream Team as the model, the professionalism and TV dollars have grown in multiples. And the result?

The Tokyo Olympics have been defined by overhyped professionals, who aren't competing for nobility so much as just another day at the office. There is no joy. There is no Olympic spirit. Many of these athletes don't look like they even want to be there.

It was just what the backers of amateurism had always feared.

These athletes aren't here to represent a global cultural get-together, but instead to represent their corporate sponsors. In Osaka's case, that was $50 million worth of endorsements. Biles was a huge part of the superhype machine, too. So was Djokovic.

And in Tokyo, they all melted down.

Osaka lost early. Djokovic didn't medal, had a tantrum and abandoned his mixed doubles partner before the bronze medal match. Biles barely competed.

None of them smiled once.

It was all glum and grim, gloom and doom and mental breakdowns. And they have defined the Tokyo Olympics so far, easily the most boring Olympics in history.

That's the model college sports is chasing, basically following the Olympic ideal down the drain.

Amateurism was always the foundation of college sports. That's dead now, after the NCAA and major conferences and school presidents saw the TV money and couldn't help themselves but to sink a bite into the apple.

Much like Olympic professionals, college athletes are going to rack up huge endorsements. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young is closing in on a million dollars in endorsements, according to coach Nick Saban. Last week, Texas high schooler Quinn Ewers decided to bypass his final year of high school to play football for Ohio State so he can take advantage of endorsement opportunities.

The education ideal doesn't factor in any more than the Olympic ideal.

The Dream Team did their job too well. They were just so good and made so much money that they broke the Olympic ideal and changed it to a cash grab.

We get so few glimpses of what used to make the Olympics great. On Tuesday, women's wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock won gold, wrapped herself in the American flag, said she was crying tears of joy and that she loves representing America.

It took women's wrestling to show it, though. It's such an obscure and underhyped sport. That's the best place to still find the spirit, where the athletes aren't already making millions.

But you wonder how many of the American professional athletes are wrapping themselves in the flag in honor and how many are in Tokyo as a business opportunity because their endorsers want them there.

The Olympics only works if the athletes think that being there is the ultimate goal and winning gold is reaching the mountaintop. Otherwise, the Games are just any other sporting event.

What am I calling for? An end to professionalism in college and the Olympics? No. Not at all. The money is there and there's no reason the athletes can't get some of it.

This is only an observation that the Olympics as we know them are dead. Money stole all the joy. The same thing might happen to college football, too.

At the end of the movie "Miracle,'' the story of the 1980 gold-medal-winning, U.S. hockey team, the coach, Herb Brooks, is reflecting on the team and what it stood for. That team was magical because it was a collection of college players and amateurs who sacrificed their individualism and beat the juggernaut Russians.

Years later, actor Kurt Russell depicted Brooks lamenting the United States using professional athletes at the Games.

"Dream Teams?" he said rhetorically. "I always found that term ironic because now that we have dream teams, we seldom get to dream.''

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