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Whatever Happened To Amateurism?

FINA, The Once-Fierce Guardian Of Amateurism
Now Governs A Sport In Which Its Leading Athletes
Are Full-Time Professionals


Cecil M. Colwin

For most of this century, FINA, the international governing body of amateur swimming, enforced strict rules of amateurism. There were any number of "no-no's," infringement of which would have made you a professional, and, as such, a pariah and "a lesser breed without the law."

Now, suddenly, poof!, amateurism has vanished, and we behold the strange spectacle of FINA actually governing a sport in which the leading athletes are almost all full-time professionals. Indeed, FINA now promotes meets for prize money around the globe almost year-round. Avery Brundage, one of the chief anti-professional inquisitors of all time, must be turning in his grave. After 100 years, the wheel has turned full circle.

How the times have changed. The other day, Ron Masters, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald ("Taxman hits Olympians." August 21, 1997), said that "a decision by the Australian Tax Office to tax grants from the Federal Government to Australian Olympians has thrown the entire athlete support system for the 2000 Sydney Games into disarray." Apparently, the Australian Tax Office had redefined the term "professional," rendering all income accruing to a professional athlete liable to tax.

As a result, the Australian Sports Commission was "at a loss to define a professional as opposed to an amateur." Said executive director, Jim Ferguson: "It may come down to deeming a professional as someone who undertakes sport to earn a living, as opposed to an athlete who might ear some winnings from time to time." Rather like being a little bit pregnant!

A few days later, also in the Sydney Morning Herald ("Drug cheats face new rules," September 2, 1997), Glenda Korporaal described how no less an august organization than the European Union had ruled that athletes "are professionals who have a right to work." The EU said that four-year bans for drug taking are too long. Even if a ban is reduced to two years, the EU suggested that athletes should be given more flexible penalties, such as being allowed to train during their period of disqualification. There you have it: in this enlightened age, we now have "restraint of trade laws" in the once pristine strongholds of amateurism.

The Myth of "Ancient Amateurism"

Where did the concept of amateurism come from in the first place? The restoration of the Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 was said to have brought with it a revival of what was supposed to be "the classical ideal of amateurism." But this was not based on fact because no ancient Greek would even have understood the idea, so foreign was it to antiquity and the ancient Olympics. The money aspect was in fact a red herring. The real distinction was between upper class English gentlemen, who sometimes dabbled a little in sport on the side, and the professional who was the socially inferior son-of-toil who participated for the money. (Hodge, 1988)

In the ancient Olympic Games, the athletes competed for prizes. These prizes were simple at first but eventually the winners had all sorts of gifts and privileges showered upon them, both on the spot and even more so when they returned home. And, at Olympia, the scene of the Ancient Olympic Games, on the north side of the Altis, there were no fewer than twelve Treasure-Houses (would this number suffice the modern IOC?), which contained the dedicated gifts and thanks-offerings for Olympian victories gained by citizens of the Greek states.

The word "amateur" certainly did not originate in ancient Greece but was first used in France during the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715) to denote a connoisseur of the fine arts. The term was first recorded in Britain in 1784, also with reference to appreciation of the polite arts of painting and music.

The earliest use of the term "amateur" in sport referred to gentleman amateurs as ring-side spectators at prize fights. The distinction in British sport between an amateur and a professional was not so much financial as social; for example, in 1831, the Oxford and the Leander Clubs rowed at Henley for the sum of 200 pounds a side, yet there was no question of professionalism.

Such sportsmen underlined their amateurism by showing that, unlike artisans, they could well afford to lose. Conversely, a blatant example of class distinction as the basis for amateurism came as late as 1871, when the Henley committee declined a local entry for the Wyfold Cup on the grounds that the crew included people who were, or had been, mechanics, artisans, and labourers. This was not a question of their having rowed for money but merely that they were not "gentlemen amateurs."

With the formation of Football Association (1863) and the Amateur Athletic Club (1866), sport ceased to be a gentleman's preserve. Though mixed games of players and gentlemen had been successfully played in cricket for over a century, the "gentleman amateurs," now merely amateurs, reacted against this: since they could no longer apply social sanctions they resorted to monetary ones. By 1880 the distinctions between amateurs and professionals had generally become a financial one.

FINA Adopts the English ASA Rules

In the mid 19th century, the future of the newly-formed Amateur Swimming Association of Great Britain was in jeopardy because many good swimmers preferred to compete for money and other prizes. However, the A.S.A. eventually was able to enforce their amateur definition throughout the country.

The success of the A.S.A. in enforcing their new amateur rules resulted in such fine swimmers as T. Cairns, Joey Nuttall, W. Evans, S. W. Greasely, J. H. Tyers, and Dave Billington being declared professionals . These great swimmers had held most of the championships from 100 yards to 1 mile, and Cairns, Nuttall, Tyers, and Billington were world famous. Their banishment was hailed as a victory for amateurism, but perhaps it was also a victory for exclusivism.

At the London Olympics, 1908, the president of the English A.S.A. was asked to draw up an Olympic Swimming Code. He was assisted in this by another Englishman, William Henry, and Max Ritter (U.S.A.), and Hjalmar Johansen (Sweden). Because the representatives of ten nations (England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, France, Ireland, Finland, Hungary, Belgium, and Wales) were participating in the Olympic meeting in London, George Hearn decided to use the opportunity to form an international swimming association with a set body of rules. Thus it was that F.I.N.A. (Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur) was formed, and its rules were based on the model of the English A.S.A.

Exclusivism and the Origins of "Amateurism"

In 1967 Dr. Wildor Hollmann, the prominent German sports physician and long-time president of the International Federation for Sports Medicine (FIMS) visited the International Olympic Academy at Olympia on the day of its annual inauguration, "with King Constantine himself in attendance." (Hoberman, 1995)

"Naively assuming that the Academy was an open forum for thinking about the past, present, and future of the Olympic movement, Dr. Hollmann expresssed the view that, in the not-too-distant future, the Olympic Ideal itself would eventually fall victim to the logic of development inherent in the professionalization and commercialization of elite sport. The words were hardly out of his mouth before Dr. Hollmann was engulfed in a storm of indignation, during which an Italian member of the IOC declared that merely expressing such thoughts was in his view nothing less than a desecration of this holy site." (Hoberman, 1995)

Much has been said and written about de Courbetin's "revival" of the Olympic Ideal as being part of the games of antiquity. But, in reality, the ancient Olympics were not revived but re-invented, then presented to the youth of the world in a version more suitable for modern consumption. There was just enough hoopla about the Sacred Olympic Ideal of Ancient Greece to capture their imagination; the panoply of the opening and closing ceremonies, the furling and unfurling of the Olympic Flag, the grand of swelling musical harmony, the release of the doves of Peace, the relay of the Sacred Torch, the lighting of the Sacred Olympic Flame, the taking of the Sacred Oath of Amateurism, the marathon, etc., etc.

All told, this was harmless stuff, and the Olympic motto Citius, altius, fortius (faster, higher, stronger) nevertheless inspired the youth of the world to better performances. Yes, by and large, bringing the youth of the world together in clean competition, and in a spirit of what used to be called "sportsmanship" was a wonderful development -if only we can ignore the fact that the so-called "Olympic Movement" has never really been a democratic organization.

According to Jennings (1996): When de Coubertin formed his International Olympic Committee, the first fifteen members included five European nobles and two generals; the rest were wealthy bourgeois. "Between 1894 and the turn of the century Coubertin added ten more princes, counts and barons. -From then until 1914 thirty-five more toffs graciously accepted invitations to run the people's Games. Among them was Coubertin's successor as president of the committee, The Belgian Henri de Baillet-Latour- a Count, of course."

The IOC elects its members for life, and it is a unique organization in that its members do not represent their countries but are delegates from the committee to their countries. Work that one out!

Furthermore, members may not accept from other organizations or from their governments any instructions that may bind them or interfere with the independence of their votes. This means that the president of any affiliated international sports federation may not be invited to be a member of the IOC, unless that person agrees not to accept instructions to the IOC from his/her own international federation! In such an instance, the obvious question here is: Who is "binding" whom? One's own federation or the IOC?

"Gentlemen of Means"

Baron de Coubertin was influenced by the English concept of character development through sport, which originated in the English Public Schools. The idea of a few amateur athletes participating in heavy training in a training camp originated more than 100 years ago when the Oxford and Cambridge rowing crews trained together for as long as six hours daily, in a highly disciplined regimen. They were gentlemen of means, and had the private financial resources to be able to do so.

When intensified training in groups for prolonged periods was extended to the broad masses "hands were raised in horror and the cry of 'professionalism' rent the air. It was only when the butchers and bakers, clerks and bricklayers, the plumbers and engineers-especially those of Eastern Europe-applied the Oxbridge formula for sport that the Cardinals of international sport protested." (Reardon, 1978.)

After World War II came the advent of the state "amateur." In the former Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries, sport was conducted under government political control. Every permitted activity had a political significance, and, in reality, there was no distinction between professional and amateur. (Reardon, 1978)

Of course, in the West, as elsewhere, many a top athlete found ways and means to cheat the system. But, despite the hypocricy of "shamamateurism," practised by many individuals and nations, an amateur Games remained the corner-stone of de Courbetin's "Olympism."

"The Marketing Event of the Century"

The strict rules of Olympic amateurism were abandoned through the sheer expediency of saving the Games. The big losses sustained by the organizers of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, said to be close to $1 billion, put the future of the Olympics in jeopardy. This wasn't helped by the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, lead by the USA and a number of other nations, which, in turn, was followed by a Soviet retaliatory boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the only city to have applied for the 1984 Games.

The 1984 Olympics, the first free-enterprise Games, produced a $225 million revenue surplus. In 1985 the IOC started a worldwide marketing system called the Olympic Programme (TOP) in which sponsorships or licencing fees were sold to companies for $US 5 million. In this respect, it is interesting to note that Rule 11 of the Olympic Charter states that: "The Olympic Games are the exclusive property of the IOC which owns all rights relating thereto, in particular, and without limitation, the rights relating to their organization, exploitation, broadcasting and reproduction by any means whatsoever."

Sponsorship revenues for the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Organizing Committee were $US42 million, and by the Seoul Olympics 1988, sponsorship revenues reached $200 million. By 1992 in Barcelona, commercial sponsorship zoomed to $420 million, and in Atlanta in 1996, together with income from joint marketing ventures with the U.S. Olympic Committee, the total revenue was expected to be a whopping $750 million. No longer was the Olympics solely a competitive arena for athletes, but also the place where the world's leading companies met in another type of competition. Advertising Age magazine said that the Atlanta Olympics had become known as the marketing event of the century."

Cheapening the Product?

The question arises: Is the commercialization of sport cheapening the product? Take for example the increasing number of activities. The number of Olympic events has doubled in the last 50 years, and, in more recent years, the Olympics have been commercialized to the extent that even ballroom dancing has been added to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, undoubtedly because of its large TV following.

The IOC has turned their "Games of Ancient Greece" into a media event, even to the extent that there is no longer room for such sports such as the modern pentathlon. Instead, in addition to ballroom dancing, professional basketball and professional tennis have been admitted, and there has even been a sustained effort on behalf of professional golf. Of course, the criterion is MONEY and value to sponsors.

What are the changes brought about by Samaranch's vision? Now there is hardly room at the Olympic Games for other than full-time professional athletes. The "amateur" sports are being squeezed out. More and more, no longer is it the coach who controls the athletes' activities but rather their agents, business managers, and public relations persons. The place of Sport as part of our culture will suffer because, unless there is nearly full-time dedication to training, there can be no thought of Olympic participation. In large measure, the incentive for many a promising athlete who wishes to strike a balance between academia and sport, and who wishes to prepare for a career after sport, has effectively been removed.

Some Questions for the Future

Will athletes, and their coaches, call for a greater share of the gigantic Olympian profits? After all, they are the leading players in what constitutes the greatest sporting extravaganza on the planet. And, on a more sombre note: will the prospect of greater financial rewards increase the temptation to join the ever-growing number of drug cheats? Will there be more unannounced drug testing? Will the testers finally get ahead of the chemists? Will the IOC come right out and acknowledge that doping is far more prevalent than they care to admit? Or would such an admission be bad for their corporate image, as well as that of their commercial partners?

The Demise of Amateurism

The ancient Games had always been connected to some religious event; some say they started as funeral rites to the gods, and it was not until the fourth century that they were held in honour of a living person. Few human enterprises have lasted as long, and perhaps this was because of the connection with religiosity, of one sort or another; the "sacred" ancient games lasted from about 776 B.C. to A.D.394 when the Christian Emperor Theodosius put a stop to them. The love of the athletic body, call it "athleticism" if you will, which was praised in art, music and literature, and which was probably an important part of the early Olympics, was eventually adulterated by a narrow and greedy desire for victories, primed by an atmosphere of corruption and commercialism. Thus it was that nobody seemed unduly miffed when the Roman Emperor called a halt to the entire affair.

Is it possible that history could be in the midst of its usual process of repeating itself? There are many who feel that many aspects of the Modern Olympics are likewise becoming irretrievably corrupted.

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