Greg's Diary: Why American Football Should Be An Olympic Sport

Author: Greg Miletic 
Photo: Jean-François Nicollet
       How in the world (literally) would there ever be a team that could come close to challenging the USA in football? That was my thought when I first heard the idea of football possibly becoming an Olympic sport, and I would bet that it was your first thought too when you read the title of this post. After all, the sport is known internationally as American football. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an Olympic sport.

Before I explain my reasoning, the short answer to the previous question is that there won’t be any legitimate competition, at least not right away. I’ve had the opportunity of playing American football in two countries outside of America – this summer in Serbia, and the summer of 2009 in Germany – so I’ve experienced firsthand the disparity in the level of play between America and other countries (and I only played for a Division III school, albeit a successful one). Even in Germany, which was considered to have the highest level of football in Europe during the time I played there, the games were generally dominated by the American imports on each team.A football team from the United States – whether it was assembled from NFL’ers, CFL’ers, or even former college players who were simply looking to keep alive the dream of playing – would almost certainly blow through the competition much like the ’92 Olympic “Dream Team” of men’s basketball did. But ultimately, that’s not really what matters most in the debate of whether or not football should be included in the Olympics.

The United States men’s national basketball team has displayed an unmatched level of dominance in its history at the Olympics, dating back to the first time basketball was an event in 1936. In their 16 Summer Olympics, the U.S. men’s team has a combined record of 123 wins and 5 losses (total!), including medaling in all 16 years, with 13 of those 16 medals being gold. Yet people generally seem to be fine with the USA competing every four years. Why? Basketball is a global sport and people love watching the best of the best, and in many cases rooting against them. Also, foreign competition has undoubtedly improved as a result of USA basketball in the Olympics, as exposure to these NBA global icons over the years has given many young athletes, no matter what country they are from, a dream to play at or against the highest level.

Random gameday photo of Greg
Photo: Jean-François Nicollet
So as each Olympics has helped to spread the popularity of basketball and its superstars, why can’t the same thing happen for football? Many NFL players are already well on their way to becoming global icons – I was amazed at how much my teammates in Serbia and Germany knew about different players and teams around the league. Who would have thought that throughout the city of Belgrade, NFL apparel and individual players’ jerseys would have been so prominent? Football is growing internationally, and according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the International Olympic Committee criterion of the sport being played in at least 64 countries has already been met. He also said that just five years ago, the number of countries playing American football was only around 40. The numbers don’t lie, and they all point to football as a budding global sport.

Although its roots can be traced back to the ancient Greek game of episkyros, football in its current form originated in America and has progressed to an extremely high level of play, with no other country coming even close. But with more exposure, education, coaching, and most importantly, time, football will advance more and more in other countries and the level of play will continue to elevate. In 1964, judo made it into the Olympics and everyone thought Japan would completely dominate. That year, a Dutchman by the name of Anton Geesink won the open category gold, and other countries have been improving ever since. In 2004, taekwondo became an Olympic sport, and while South Korea has been winning most of the medals, other countries are catching up and closing the competitive gap. While these sports are very different from football, a similar pattern of exposure leading to increased competition could eventually take place, as has been happening in basketball.

Another random gameday photo of Greg
Photo: Ivana Botic
Even though it is purely an American event, the Super Bowl is one of the highest rated sports competitions worldwide. The countries outside of America don’t have a reason to have a rooting interest in the game – except for the fact that they love the sport. Olympic American football would give these countries a genuine, nationalistic rooting interest in football, which would only increase its popularity. They wouldn’t be rooting for a gold medal anytime soon, but what about a silver or a bronze? What about pulling for that upset that nobody believes can happen?

With time, an American football culture can be instilled in these countries, and the Olympics would do a great deal in speeding that process along. Young athletes in Serbia, Germany, Poland, or any of the other 60 plus countries with football could grow up learning to play the game, and dreaming of playing in the NFL, or at last representing their country in the Olympics. Young quarterbacks could start developing and sprouting up in other countries with the increased knowledge and coaching that would come along with the increased exposure. Granted, this is all speculation and none of this is certain to happen, but with the growing popularity of American football and the unmatched excitement of the sport, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that adding football to the Olympics would help out the sport as a whole.

Greg Miletic - Blue Dragons Belgrade (Serbia) Import, Serbia National Team Coordinator. Visit his blog - Miletic World, for more fun posts.