Olympic amateurism from de Coubertin to Samaranch: A story of professionalization and commercialization

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Susan J. Rayl
State University of New York at Cortland


Matthew P. Llewellyn & John Gleaves
The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism
272 pages, paperback.
Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press 2016 (Sport and Society)
ISBN 978-0-252-08184-2

For a 1985 delegate to the International Olympic Academy, one who left the family of Olympic fans and researchers a few decades ago for other areas of sport history study, The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism serves as eye-opener to the history of amateurism in the modern Olympic Games. Arranged chronologically in an Introduction, eight chapters and an Epilogue, colleagues Matthew Llewellyn and John Gleaves scoured archival material from the International Olympic Committee, International Amateur Athletic Federation, British Olympic Foundation, and Avery Brundage collection as a basis for their manuscript.

This book presents a history of amateurism in the modern Olympic Games from 1894 through open professionalism of the 1980s and 1990s. The authors introduce readers to the pros and cons of the current Olympic games, as well as the beginnings of amateurism in Victorian Britain. Linked to Muscular Christianity, masculinity, good sportsmanship and fair play, amateurism was used in the 20th century to determine not only who could play but also how they played. Though the modern Olympic Games founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, embraced the concept of amateurism, he quickly discovered that it conflicted with his ideals of a global Olympics.

Llewellyn and Gleaves discuss each Olympic Games and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president chronologically. They detail Coubertin’s vision of Olympism and amateurism and the challenges he faced in implementing his philosophy of international harmony, as well as the development of Muscular Christianity through elite sport. Amateurism was instituted in the first games, held in 1896 in Athens, but there was no way to enforce the policy and the next two Olympics, Paris in 1900 and St. Louis in 1904, both held over a five-month period in coalition with World’s Fairs, witnessed professional athletes in sports such as fencing and cycling.

Because many definitions of amateur existed, the IOC could not regulate amateurism globally. And despite honorable attempts initially on the part of British sport governing bodies and Sporting Life magazine, a lack of seriousness and agreement among the various sport federations provided no clear definition. Yet, the IOC chose to selectively punish athletes, such as American pentathlete and decathlete Jim Thorpe, for breaking their amateur standards.

Throughout the 1920s, amateurism remained a debated topic in the Olympic Games. Coubertin’s vision of an Olympics open to all regardless of social class, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or political affiliation manifested itself with Latin American IOC delegates and more diverse athletes. The authors note that while the IOC remained conservative and elitist, the “level of performance increased and pursuing excellence more demanding.” Yet, non-Western athletes lacked the financial ability to participate without financial compensation and accepted under the table payments. Controversy arose with the 1924 Paris Games and broken time payments (financial compensation given to athletes for time missed at work). Opposed to such payments, the IOC faced the possible loss of soccer and tennis in the Olympic Games. Because soccer brought money to the IOC, they could break the amateur policy. When Coubertin retired in 1925, ambivalent and apathetic toward amateurism, Comte Henri de Baillet-Latour, the new IOC President, sought to strengthen amateurism.

Though the IOC viewed the Soviets as suspicious, the organization ignored its own code in regarding to Communism and amateurism in exchange for global participation.

Despite a world-wide depression, both the 1932 Los Angeles and 1936 Berlin Olympic Games found tremendous success. With more opportunities for amateur athletes to make money on their talents and increased specialized training, there were frequent violations of the amateur code. The IOC targeted Finland’s Paavo Nurmi as a violator, disqualifying him in 1932. While Democratic countries, such as Sweden, France and the Netherlands had subsidized training and transport of athletes to the Olympic Games since 1924, Fascist and military regimes, such as Italy under Mussolini, emerged in the 1930s and    sport to promote propaganda and nationalism. Yet, there was little action taken on the part of the IOC. The IOC worked to strengthen relations with international sport federations in the 1930s. Both the FIG (gymnastics) and FIS (skiing) had codes that did not conform to IOC amateurism, so the IOC made agreements with both to retain them in the Olympic family.

The authors note that Avery Brundage set the tone for the IOC during the Cold War Years. Unlike Coubertin, Brundage viewed the Olympics as amateur and playful; Olympians competed for the love of the sport. How one played, not who played, mattered to Brundage. When Baillet-Latour passed away in 1942, Sigfrid Edstrom became the new IOC president and Avery Brundage the Vice President. A growing commercialism of Olympic sports and questions of professionalism in US Ice Hockey and European Nordic skiers caused many athletes to forgo the St. Moritz Winter Games in 1948. Though the IOC viewed the Soviets as suspicious, the organization ignored its own code in regarding to Communism and amateurism in exchange for global participation. The Soviets entered the Helsinki Games in 1952, disregarding the rules and developing a specialized system of training athletes, and IOC had no power to stop them. Soviet sport bound the Communist Bloc countries together, challenging the European based and amateur policies of the IOC. Ironically, Brundage accepted and tolerated Soviet behavior in deference to his amateur ideal to grow the Olympic Movement universally and turned his efforts to Western countries, where he also faced many challenges to his Olympic amateurism.

After 1956 and into the 1960s, Western media called for an end to the sham of amateurism and advocated for open games. Brundage’s sense of amateurism varied and he selectively enforced the IOC code, unwilling to act against Soviet state sponsored sport, and placing commercialism, publicity, and prestige before amateurism. Non-Communist countries felt the IOC favored Communist countries, and USA politicians debated subsidizing Olympic teams. Though Brundage disapproved, IOC members voted to accept a newly organized Amateur Committee proposal allowing broken time payments, and traveling and living expenses for athletes who could show financial hardship for their dependents. The Olympic Movement transformed in the 1960s, as many third world nations in Africa and Asia who had achieved statehood joined as members, though they rarely had a voice and were forced to assimilate into the Western cultural approach.

The 1968 Mexico City Games served as the beginning of the end of amateurism. Civil rights movements, inequality, communication technology/mass media, mass production of sporting goods, television rights, and global commercialism all contributed. As the General Assembly of National Olympic Committees promoted a more progressive stance on amateurism, Brundage remained stubborn to change. The IOC debated television rights and the distribution of revenues, as the Olympics shifted into a series of commercially driven entertainment events. Athletes became vehicles for advertisement, and shoe companies vied for athletes to endorse their products. Led by Hugh Weir, the IOC Eligibility Committee selectively disqualified Austrian alpine skier and celebrity, Karl Schranz, from the 1972 Sapporo Games. Viewed as a martyr, Schranz grew more famous and joined the professional circuit while Brundage lost credibility and received public backlash. The 1972 Munich Games were the last for Brundage as IOC President. Under new IOC President Lord Killanin, the IOC allowed broken time payments, and compensated for training and competition for all athletes.

Llewellyn and Gleaves have done a superb job of weaving the development of Rule 26—Olympic amateurism—into a basic history of the modern Olympic Games.

During the 1970s, the Soviet Union and German Democratic Republic developed their talent via performance enhancing drugs, while the USA explored medical approaches to training. The 1978 Amateur Sports Act ushered the USA Government into elite sport. Other Western countries followed with state intervention and calls for reform of the amateur Rule 26 increased. The IOC adopted Rule 27 on anti-doping in 1975 and created a Medical Commission. Juan Antonio Samaranch, elected in 1980 as new IOC President, brokered a corporate IOC, complete with television agreements and sponsorship. Discussion on amateur eligibility between the IOC and ice hockey and soccer resulted in a compromise for the 1984 Sarajevo winter and Los Angeles summer Games, respectively. In addition, the IOC allowed professional tennis players under the age of 20 at Los Angeles. Despite a Soviet boycott, these games proved very successful, as commercialism, television contracts, and corporate sponsorship created a $232 million surplus. The amateur Rule 26 was reformed, permitting professionals in soccer, ice hockey and tennis with age limits for soccer and ice hockey for the 1988 Seoul Games. Four years later, the IOC allowed professional athletes in all sports.

For a century, the IOC feared that professional athletes would harm the Olympic movement, but the opposite occurred, as evidenced by the USA’s basketball “Dream Team” in 1992 in Barcelona. The IOC had voted in 1989 to accept an open tournament for basketball, and other sports followed. The Olympics remain very popular today, perhaps because in addition to elite sport they promote moral values and fair play. With the acceptance of professional athletes in recent decades, the IOC has attempted to rectify the past treatment of Olympians, such as Jim Thorpe, Paavo Nurmi and Karl Schranz. For example, the IOC returned Thorpe’s honors and provided replica medals to his family in 1983, while a statue of Paavo Nurmi graces the IOC Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland.

I really like this book – the chronological order, the writing style, the flow, the extensive use of primary, secondary, and archival sources and more. Llewellyn and Gleaves have done a superb job of weaving the development of Rule 26—Olympic amateurism—into a basic history of the modern Olympic Games. They have nicely described the philosophy of amateurism promoted by each IOC President into the narrative, explaining the contradictions posed and challenges faced in each IOC presidential era. I especially like the mini history lessons that are placed in context, such as a background and early life of Avery Brundage in Chapter 5 and the history of the Puma and Adidas shoe companies in Chapter 7. The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism lays a basis for expansion of scholarship on the amateurism/professionalism dichotomy in the Olympic Games, as well as the experiences of many athletes who were caught up in the controversy over amateurism. Moreover, scholarship on the use of amateurism today in American colleges and universities and its connection with the IOC and AAU could be explored by future researchers. Llewellyn and Gleaves have penned an excellent scholarly book in The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism that should grace the libraries of Olympic and sport historians, and accompany any course on the history of the modern Olympic games.

Copyright © Susan J. Rayl 2017
Originally published in Aethlon

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  1. Just a quick note about the review (I’m currently waiting for my own copy, so cannot assess whether the mistake is the authors’ or reviewers): After 1972 Sapporo games Karl Schranz did not join the professional circuit, but he retired from racing altogether.

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