Amateurism in the Olympics Is Fading Faster Than Blue Denim

"Professionalism" used to be a dirty word at the Olympics, a concept as unpalatable as day-old bagels. For decades, officials pounced whenever they sensed the pristine, amateur Olympic environment was endangered.

Two notable cases come to mind. Jim Thorpe, a native American who won the decathlon and pentathlon in 1912, was stripped of his medals after it was discovered that he'd made a small sum of money playing semipro baseball years earlier. (The medals were returned posthumously.)

Then in 1972, Avery Brundage, a bulldog defender of amateurism during 20 years as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, led the charge that disqualified Austrian skier Karl Schranz for appearing in equipment advertisements.

Now, of course, the landscape is far different: Professionals openly strut through the Olympic gates, virtually no questions asked and no financial statements required. In fact, the multimillionaire professionals of the 1992 and '96 US men's basketball Dream Teams are welcomed almost as pop celebrities. So what if their collective salaries exceed the GNPs of some countries?

The emphasis today is on making sure the best athletes participate, no matter what their financial stripe or circumstance.

Amateurism, as once defined, was probably a house of cards to begin with. Gary Allison - an Olympic historian who is completing a multivolume look-back at the Games called the First Century Project - says "amateurism" is "one of the most misunderstood words in the Olympic movement. It came ... from the British as a way of defining that sport[s] would be for the rich ... the working class need not apply."

Mr. Allison says that the meaning of amateurism was unclear to the Olympic founding fathers, who debated in the late 19th century "what was wrong with the working-class fellow who could run the 100 meters better than the guy who lived in baronial splendor .... Amateurism took on the ideals and thinking of a lot of different people when it didn't make much sense in the first place." In fact, in ancient Greece athletes were often well rewarded.

Some entities, such as the International Amateur Athletic Association, track and field's governing body, continue their nominal ties to the past, but the International Olympic Committee expunged the words "amateur" and "professional" from its charter during the late 1980s. Responsibility for determining eligibility was placed in the hands of the various international sports governing bodies, which is why the Olympics are so uneven in this regard (i.e., basketball is open to all, but baseball and boxing bar professionals ).

Archery's governing body is one of the more conservative. Former US Olympian Darrell Pace says it was once the strictest of any sport: "I could shoot for a Pepsi with someone at the club, but they would have to put the money in the machine. If I ... put it in the machine, I could have been considered a professional."

Several major developments exerted pressure on the Olympic movement to drop the pro vs. amateur distinction. One was the advent of television and the money it has pumped into high-level athletics, spawning the age of professional leagues and competitions. Then there was the double standard created when state-supported Olympic powers like the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Cuba prospered using athletes who were only nominally amateur.

Change was inevitable, and now athletes in virtually every sport receive some combination of performance bonuses, training grants, appearance fees, salaries, and corporate backing.

Gary Allison claims that "amateurism is still alive and well at the Olympics. You just have to know where to find it."

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