Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The "Amateur Sometimes" Rule

In his very interesting article in the NY Times ("Let The Games Be Doped"), John Tierny begins, "Once upon a time, the lords of the Olympic Games believed that the only true champion was an amateur, a gentleman hobbyist untainted by commerce." This statement (which admittedly has little to do with Tierny's argument) is only partly true warrants a closer look.

In the early days of the Olympics, amateur rules were primarily enforced in events with participants from lower classes. Sports such as yachting and fencing, seen to be exclusively aristocratic, were exempt from the rule. The cost of a yacht limited participation to society's upper echelon and membership in fencing clubs was expensive and meant being socially connected. But in track events, expensive trophies and excessive travel allowances were banned to limit participation to those with means.

As architect of the modern Olympics, the Baron Pierre de Coubertin's primary interest was using the Olympics as a means to reinvigorate Europe's aristocracy and return them to political and cultural prominence. Consequently, the "amateur only" rule was really an "amateur sometimes" rule, applied when the sport in question did not present natural barriers to working class participants.


SM Sprenger said...

Wait--am I missing something? Tierney is referring mainly to the idea that the participants in the Olympics could not be paid professionals....that is, paid for doing sport as a full-time profession.

Whether you were aristocratic or working class, didn't matter so much as you that were not a professional sportsman.... I remember the debate: since the athletes in the Eastern Block are basically full-time employees of the state, why shouldn't NBA players or NHL players be allowed to play?

I must admit that, even though I think Tierney's argument about permitting doping makes sense, I felt that professionalizing the Olympics cheapened them. I haven't thought through why, I just remember feeling at the time that somehow their authenticity had been lost. Who really cares about watching basketball or tennis in the Olympics?

Corry Cropper said...

Yes, I know that is Tierney's main argument. And it's a good one. He says that the amateur rule didn't work (too hard to govern) and that current doping laws don't work either and, like the amateur rule, should eventually be abandoned.

The claim that all Olympians were originally amateurs, though, is not true. In the 1900 games (that Coubertin lost control over), nearly a million francs in prize money was awarded, some to paid professionals. And during the 1894 Congress where the reestablishment of the games was decided, the ban on cash prizes was not imposed in fencing. Fencing was deemed a sufficiently aristocratic sport that the amateur rule did not apply.

My point is that the original amateur only rule was less about stopping prize money, and more about limiting participation to the upper class.