SI Vault
 
A QUESTION OF THE SOUL
Charles W. Thayer
August 15, 1960
On the eve of the 1960 Games, the survival of the Olympic movement hangs on an issue which has defied definition—amateurism. Out of the welter of conflicting arguments among men and nations a well-known author, diplomat and sportsman draws on his years in the Western and Soviet worlds to clarify the issue and discusses possible solutions
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 15, 1960

A Question Of The Soul

On the eve of the 1960 Games, the survival of the Olympic movement hangs on an issue which has defied definition—amateurism. Out of the welter of conflicting arguments among men and nations a well-known author, diplomat and sportsman draws on his years in the Western and Soviet worlds to clarify the issue and discusses possible solutions

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Rome, I believe, will see the last amateur Olympics. The International Olympic Committee, that stouthearted defender of the amateur tradition, is facing a mounting clamor for a fundamental redefinition of amateurism. When the committee assembles next week for its meeting before the Games, it will have before it several proposals—some from within its own ranks—to deal with well-substantiated charges that in the East it is winking at Soviet flouting of its rules and in the West it is being hoodwinked by individual athletes and their federations. Whatever the outcome of this and subsequent meetings, it is certain that the amateur Olympic code will have to be drastically reappraised in the light of 20th century realities.

What precisely is the tradition of Olympic amateurism? The ancient Greek games, the greatest of the games, those which Pindar extols, were definitely amateur—an amateurism based on the aristocracy of Greek city-states, for the aristocrats alone had the money and the leisure to practice the strenuous discipline required. But with the increasing influence of the merchant class, Greek society changed, and the games changed, too. The principles of amateurism were stretched and bent until finally the city-states were subsidizing their leading athletes and showering them with rewards and privileges, just as the Russians now are doing openly and virtually every Western country in secret.

The fact is, the tradition the International Olympic Committee is so valiantly defending, while based on the original Greek concept, is in its modern concept less than a century old. It is the byproduct of a unique and brief period in Anglo-Saxon history which gave the world its first "gentleman amateur." Prior to the English school reforms of the mid-19th century, almost all first-rate athletes in England were professionals who performed to amuse the well-heeled upper classes and to give them a spectacle on which to bet their money. When the "gentlemen" themselves decided to participate in sports, they were obliged to exclude the professional "players," because the strict social conventions of the day forbade gentlemen to associate with those who plied a trade considered by the upper classes to be demeaning.

These conventions, both social and sporting, were adhered to in the cradle of American amateur athletics, the private boarding schools of New England and the Ivy League colleges of the East Coast. Both in America and in England a gentleman might hire an ex-prizefighter, a golf trainer or a tennis teacher to coach his son and might even brush up his own game in a round with the professional. But when it was over, the pro left by the service entrance and the gentleman went in to tea.

It was in this privileged and leisurely atmosphere that the concept of the amateur was born. And toward the end of this era the present members of the International Olympic Committee started their athletic careers, with unquestioned acceptance of the amateur creed. Critics describe them as a self-perpetuating clique of rich, like-minded old men in horse blinkers, living in the long-forgotten past. The description is unfair. Some of them, including their doughty president, Avery Brundage, are indeed rich. They do indeed elect their own successors, jealously rejecting all outside interference. But they are also dedicated idealists who believe passionately and sincerely in the amateur ideal and ascribe to it a spiritual value that exceeds by far what they consider the only relatively difficult problems of enforcing the amateur code.

The champions of amateurism find it difficult, however, to say precisely what amateurism is. "It is a thing of the spirit," Brundage recently wrote me, "and hence is very difficult to define." "It is a question of the soul," one of his French colleagues said, raising his shoulders in perplexity, "and how can one define a condition of the soul?"

But define it they did in Rule 26 of the Olympic rules:

"An amateur is one who participates and always has participated in sport solely for pleasure and for the physical, mental or social benefits he derives therefrom, and to whom participation in sport is nothing more than recreation without material gain of any kind, direct or indirect. In addition he must comply with the rules of the International Federation concerned."

This rule is supplemented by a statement that athletes subsidized by governments, educational institutions or by businesses are not amateurs but "pseudo amateurs," and hence ineligible for amateur competition. The definition also condemns athletes who are sponsored for national aggrandizement or are given posts in the army or civil services. It opposes training camps operated for more than two weeks, athletic scholarships and "other inducements of various kinds"—recipients of which cannot qualify for the amateur category.

The definition is further supplemented by seven "decisions" declaring "ineligible for the Olympic Games" those who have ever played for money; received pay as teachers or coaches; profited commercially from their athletic fame in the press, movies, theater or radio; have received expense money exceeding actual outlay; have decided to turn professional; neglected their usual vocation for competitive sport; or have permitted their names or pictures to be used for advertising.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7