Many Pro Athletes Skip Sydney

Denver Nuggets forward Antonio McDyess was named to the U.S. men’s basketball team, replacing the injured Tim Duncan, who followed Grant Hill and Tom Gugliotta off the Olympic team roster and on to the growing list of star professional athletes who will miss the Olympics this year.

Duncan underwent surgery May 24 to repair torn cartilage in his left knee, an injury that kept him out of the NBA playoffs last spring, and has only just recently begun rehabilitation. The San Antonio Spurs star forward had told USA Basketball that he might be questionable for the games in Sydney, it was reported Aug. 2.

His injury robbed the team of one of the NBA’s most effective big men. In addition, a departure by Duncan made him the third player to leave the men’s Olympic team in the past five months.

All-Star No-Shows

The International Olympic Committee opened the games to professional athletes in 1988, paving the way for basketball Dream Teams and hockey teams comprised of future Hall of Famers.

But the story in Sydney, so far, has been the big-name no-shows.

NBA MVP Shaquille O’Neal has spurned offers to play on his third Olympic team. O’Neal’s star Los Angeles Lakers sidekick Kobe Bryant also declined the invitation so he can get married this summer.

In tennis, Wimbledon champ Pete Sampras won’t be in Sydney, saying he didn’t want to make the long trip so soon after the U.S. Open. Martina Hingis, the top-ranked female tennis player in the world, said her busy schedule precludes her from representing Switzerland in the Olympics.

Anna Kournikova also declined the chance to play in Sydney. Russian Tennis Federation vice president Alexei Selivanenko said of Kournikova, “the interests of the Olympic Games and the interests of the tennis player differ.”

USA Basketball has had no trouble recruiting stars and attributes the few losses of big-name players to unfortunate injuries and scheduling problems, said Craig Miller, the assistant executive director of media public relations for USA Basketball.

Public Does Not Mind

What does the departure of well-known professional athletes mean for the games in Sydney?

According to Performance Research, an independent market research firm based in Newport, R.I., a lack of star power in the Olympics is OK with consumers, many of whom prefer to see champions being made at the games.

“Focus groups have suggested that people expect to see professional athletes in their own domain,” said Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research. “But they prefer to see up-and-coming athletes at the Olympics — they want to see them rise up to the challenge. To some degree, focus groups suggest that professional athletes’ participation [in the Olympics] has in some ways tainted” that preferred version of the games.

Pearsall also said research indicates the public is “losing interest in two things associated with the Olympics: the degree of commercialism, and the degree of professionalism.”

But Miller countered that the first Dream Team in 1992 revolutionized the sport on an international stage.

“There’s a perception by some that it [having a U.S. team with professional players] isn’t an interest to some nationally or internationally, but interest and ticket sales have showed that to be unfounded,” he said.

Miller said TV ratings in 1992 were a smashing success, and that trend continued in Atlanta. “Even in 1996, if you look at the crowds the men drew for games, they set all-time attendance records.”

Pros Can Raise Awareness

While Pearsall said focus groups grumbled about having professional athletes in the Olympics in Barcelona — where the men’s basketball Dream Team debuted — and in Atlanta, Miller says the evolution has been well received by fans and players.

“For a long time professionals had competed in individual sports like cycling and track and tennis. But the 1992 USA team was ground breaking in that it was the first team comprised of mega superstars — Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who were on the finishing side of their careers — and players who were still pretty early in their careers — David Robinson, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing and college star Christian Laettner. That team was unique timing wise and name wise.”

Miller added that young international players have pointed to the 1992 Dream Team as having a big influence on their decisions to pursue basketball. “The team helped to create an awareness of the game both globally and nationally.”

Replacing Duncan with another NBA standout still leaves the men’s basketball team chockful of professional players and worthy of “Dream Team” status.

But the loss of well-known professional athletes to other Olympic teams due to crowded international sports schedules and injuries could also create room for other amateurs to shine in Sydney, giving them star power as well.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.