Pull out your wallets, some bar bets are about to be settled. For years, sports fans argued about who would win if heavyweight champion Larry Holmes fought three-time Olympic champ Teofilo Stevenson. Or how the Soviet national hockey team would fare against the Edmonton Oilers. Or how some of those big East German weight lifters would do on an NFL line. Well, we may soon find out.
In March, Sergei Priakin became the first Soviet athlete to play with a North American professional team when he joined the NHL's Calgary Flames. A few weeks later, Soviet officials reached an agreement with American promoters to allow some of their boxers to fight professionally in the United States.
Now that the door has opened for hockey and boxing, basketball will likely be next. Earlier this year, the International Basketball Federation voted to allow professionals to compete in its tournaments. This obviously cleared the way for U.S. professionals such as Larry Bird and Michael Jordan to play in the Olympics. It also removed a major obstacle to Soviets playing in the NBA.
"I would think there is a very good chance of it happening by next season," said NBA Executive Vice President Russ Granik. "The Soviet federation knows the players can play and they can still have them back for the Olympics." And if the NBA goes ahead with its much-discussed European expansion, we could see a Soviet franchise (the Moscow Proletarians?).
The Soviets appear to have two reasons for allowing their athletes to turn pro. First, it fosters the image of openness Mikhail Gorbachev has sought to portray to the world. Second, it brings in hard cash. Soviet officials usually negotiate for their athletes with Western promoters and take a hefty portion off the top for their efforts.
This money skimming doesn't always sit well with the athletes. In May, tennis star Natalya Zvereva defied authorities when she signed with her own agent and announced that she would keep more of her prize money. And when Soviet hockey star Alexander Mogilny defected in May, sources close to Mogilny gave as his reasons his desire for greater freedom, his wish to be with his American girlfriend, and his desire for more money—not necessarily in that order.
Japan is also attracting its share of Soviet talent. This past winter, several Soviet wrestlers made their professional "wrestling" debuts with the New Japan wrestling organization. Once again, the Japanese have scored a major coup, but is professional wrestling ready for real Russians?