The evolution of the Olympic ideal

When the modern Olympic Games were launched in 1896, only amateur athletes were invited to compete. Now even professionals with seven-figure incomes can go for Olympic gold. What happened to the amateur ideal?

Why were pros once excluded?
Victorian minds considered competing for money to be a low-class pursuit. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who revived the Olympics, insisted that only athletes driven by a pure love of sport were worthy of entering an Olympic stadium. As international delegates debated the rules for the first modern games, held in Athens in 1896, the British delegation argued that manual laborers should be flatly disqualified, as only the wealthy could afford to exert themselves without hope of financial gain. The other delegates decided the cost of travel would be enough of a deterrent to filter out the rabble. For decades, all Olympians were required to sign an affidavit swearing that they had never been paid for playing sports, and that their training had not been subsidized in any way.

Was the regulation enforced?
Strictly and without mercy. The most infamous case was that of Jim Thorpe, a Native American who won the pentathlon and the decathlon at the 1912 Olympics, held in Stockholm. The Swedish monarch himself, King Gustav V, marveled at Thorpe’s feats and proclaimed him “the greatest athlete in the world.” Two years after the Games, Olympic officials stripped Thorpe of his medals and erased his name from the record books after they learned he had played semiprofessional baseball while he was in college, for $2 a game.

Didn’t anyone object?
Thorpe’s disqualification caused an uproar, but Olympic officials refused to yield. Even after Thorpe, the Olympics continued to disqualify athletes who failed to live up to the amateur ideal. Paavo Nurmi, “the Flying Finn,” also fell victim to that ideal after winning nine gold medals for distance running in the 1920s. Nurmi had hopes of competing for Finland one last time at the 1932 Los Angeles Games, but the International Amateur Athletic Federation accused him of taking cash prizes in several races and stripped him of his eligibility. Jean Shiley won the high-jump gold in 1932 with a world record jump of 5 feet 5 inches. She had hopes of defending her title, but she was barred from the Olympics after officials learned she had earned money teaching swimming lessons.

What finally prompted a change?
During the Cold War, complaints about Olympic eligibility requirements grew deafening. Western athletes and coaches charged that “amateur” Iron Curtain athletes were, in fact, all professional, brazenly subsidized by their governments. These athletes were nominally employed as soldiers or police officers, but their real job was training and bringing home Olympic medals to prove the superiority of communism. Communist countries said U.S. college athletes were no different, receiving free room and board and tuition while spending most of their time developing their athletic skills. Avery Brundage, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee during that era, resisted the increasingly clamorous calls for change. He and the ideal he championed were openly mocked by many athletes, who contended that modern, world-class performers had no time to earn a living outside their sports. American shot-putter Parry O’Brien, a gold medal winner in Brundage’s era, stated flatly: “I have never known a name Olympic athlete who was an amateur.”

How were the rules relaxed?
In 1974, two years after Brundage retired as head of the IOC, officials deleted the amateur requirement from the Olympic charter, though not from the rule book itself. In 1973, the IOC gave athletes the right to accept aid for training. Two years later, people who earned a living as coaches were given the right to compete. In 1986, the IOC took the final step, and removed the ban on professionals. Now, the international federations that govern each Olympic sport decide whether to allow professionals in their events. Professional tennis players were the first to play on the Olympic stage in 1988. Then, Olympic basketball went pro in 1992 at Barcelona, and the U.S. “Dream Team”—led by established pros like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan—forever changed the image of the modern Olympian.

Are pros allowed in all events?
Not quite. Boxing is one of the last bastions of amateurism in the Summer Games. No pro boxers may compete. The skating federation still differentiates between amateurs and professionals, though it permits amateurs to take prize money from sanctioned events like national championships. Performing for “Disney on Ice” or other exhibitions makes a skater ineligible. Even then, there are exceptions. Skaters Brian Boitano and Katarina Witt were paid for skating in touring ice shows, but in 1994 applied for reinstatement as amateurs. Officials granted their requests, but cautioned that this was the last time they’d grant any skater retroactive virginity.

Could amateurism return?
Not a chance. Professional athletes have brought new interest and new revenue to the Games, which now warmly embrace the professionals Baron de Coubertin once disdained. The Olympics have become a giant industry, generating hundreds of millions of dollars for host cities and various businesses. TV networks pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the right to televise the Games, and they have enjoyed a ratings boost from the basketball Dream Teams and other top-caliber pro stars. Today Olympians even get paid by their countries, as long as they win. The U.S. Olympic Committee offers athletes cash if they bring home a medal—$15,000 for gold, $10,000 for silver, and $7,500 for bronze. Some of the individual federations add their own incentives; American swimmers who are the first to touch the wall get gold medal payments of $50,000, courtesy of USA Swimming. And that’s all before Wheaties comes calling.

The myth of Greek amateurism
The Greek athletes who served as models for the amateur ideal were not as pure as Baron de Coubertin believed. Officially, the only prize awarded to champions in the ancient Greek Olympics was an olive-branch crown. But victorious athletes from that first Olympic era—776 B.C. to A.D. 400—were well compensated with money, food, and prestigious jobs once they returned to the city-states they represented. Between Olympics, these local heroes were free to compete in other games that offered valuable prizes. In his book The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics, classics professor David C. Young says that in the Iliad, Homer describes triumphant athletes being showered with gold, “horses, mules, valuable cattle, well-girded women, and iron.” Young argues that some prizes given to Greek athletes were worth more than $100,000 today. At the Panathenaic Games in Athens in 350 B.C., for example, the winner of a sprint roughly equivalent to today’s 200-meter dash was rewarded with 100 10-gallon jars of olive oil. Young calculated the prize to be worth 1,200 drachmas—the equivalent of three years’ wages for a common laborer of that era. “Ancient amateurism is a myth,” Young says.


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