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For Love or For Money: A History of Amateurism in the Olympic Games

Today, only wrestling continues to prohibit participation in the Games to amateurs only, as boxing, one of the last bastions of amateur-only athletics now allows professional fighters to compete.

by L.A. Jennings
Jun 7 2016, 6:25pm

1924 American Olympic Boxing Team (Boxrec Boxing Encyclopaedia, 2009 via Library of Congress)

On Wednesday, June 1st, the International Boxing Associated voted to allow professional boxers compete in the upcoming Olympic Games. Many Professional Boxers have already commented on this development, including former World Champion Mike Tyson, who told reporters "It's ridiculous, it's foolish, and some of the pro fighters are going to get beaten by the amateurs."

Opinions range across boxing institutions from the enthusiastic International Boxing Association (AIBA): "Every athlete should have the right to go to the Olympic Games," to deep revulsion from the World Boxing Council, which stated: "The WBC has taken a stance and decided that any WBC champion and top 15 rated in our rankings is forbidden to participate until clear guidelines and safety measures are in place. If they do they will be banned from the WBC for 2 years."

As the arguments rage online and in the offices of the 'hallowed' IOC, it is interesting to look back at the history of amateurism in the Olympic Games, and how that history has become mired in the commercialism of today's international sports media complex.

History

The word amateur derives from the Latin word, amator, or lover. In a sense, that is what it means to be an amateur—someone who dedicates himself or herself to a pursuit not for the money, but for love. The Oxford English Dictionary defines amateur as "one who cultivates anything as a pastime, as distinguished from one who prosecutes it professionally." Indeed, the first use of amateur in the English language occurred in 1786 in European Magazine: "Dr. Percival writes on philosophical subjects as an amateur rather than as a master." Yet an amateur can clearly operate on a masterful level while not necessarily being a professional, as Mike Tyson recently stated, as only he can articulate, in his interview. And in the vast history of the Olympic Games, an athlete's career outside of the stadium was not always of the utmost concern.

Fighting sports, along with running, have the longest history in the origin of the Games. The first Olympic Games was held in 776 B.C. and featured only a single course 200 meter race, known as the stadion. According to Nicolaos Yalouris in The Eternal Olympics, wrestling was introduced in the 18th Olympiad in 708 B.C., boxing in the 23rd Olympiad in 688 B.C., and the Pankration (an original mixed martial art) in 33rd Olympiad in 648 B.C. Precisely when and why the Games fettered out continues to be debated, as academics in the past thirty years have argued against the long-held reductionist belief that they were unilaterally quashed in 394 A.C.E. by Theodosius. Sports, of course, continued to be popular pursuits around the globe, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that a French anglophile, Pierre de Coubertin, worked to revive the Olympic Games.

Sports in 19th century remained a luxury of the middle and upper classes with lower class athletes routinely excluded from participation. The rules for the 1878 Henley Regatta declared: "No person shall be considered an amateur oarsman or sculler...who is or has been by trade or employment for wages, a mechanic, artisan, or laborer." Sports historian Allen Guttmann explains that in its earliest institution, rules of amateurism were invented by the Victorian middle and upper classes to "exclude the 'lower orders' from the play of the leisure class." When Pierre de Coubertin called for the revival of the Olympic Games in 1892, the primary discussion amongst the elite group of educators and public figures who formed the first version of the Olympic committee was to determine who would be allowed to compete in the Games. Historically, classism ruled the sports and athletic activities practiced by the gentry, not only to prevent the mingling of the higher echelons with the common masses, but because many of the elite insisted that the 'plebeians' had no concept of sportsmanship and fair play.

1949 wrestling match (Photo by Stanley Kubrick via Library of Congress)

At the end of the 19th century, the inaugural Olympic congress felt it was discriminatory to prevent a day laborer from participating in a field event simply because he made his living by his hands. Yet at the same time, it was unfair for a professional prizefighter to face off with mechanic who boxed in his free time. Thus, the 1892 congress redefined amateurism so that it restricted those who profited by their participation in a sport. As Guttmann eloquently summed up this Victorian ideation: "Through most of the twentieth century amateurism was defended with the argument that fair play and good sportsmanship are possible only when sports are an athlete's avocation, never his or her vocation."

And thus when the games began in 1896, participation was limited to athletes who did not receive any financial compensation for his or her athletic endeavors. Interestingly, the original Olympic Games made no such restriction on how an Olympic athlete made his living. As long as one adhered to the other rules of participation, a boy or man could compete in the games and be compensated, with money or glory, based on his performance. In fact, the Olympic victor in the inaugural 776 B.C. Games was Coroebus of Elis—reportedly a cook. But his culinary profession did not prohibit him from remuneration based on his athletic prowess.

While the Olympic definition of amateurism was seen as a way to not discriminate against the 'lower orders,' it instead emphasized that those who did not have personal wealth or leisure would not be able to support themselves with their sport. This continued the path of elitism, where athletes who had to work a non-sport specific job still had to maintain a rigorous training regiment in order to be competitive at their sport. Over the century that followed the inauguration of the Olympic Games, rules changed: in 1988 the IOC made all professional athletes eligible for participation in Olympic Game complex, allowing the Dream Team to dominate basketball in 1992 with Michael Jordan at the helm. Each sport has its own governing body that determines eligibility and rules of what is permissible in terms of an athlete's compensation.

Today, only wrestling continues to prohibit participation in the Games to amateurs only, as boxing, one of the last bastions of amateur-only athletics now allows professional fighters to compete. It is interesting that wrestling remains the last amateur-only Olympic sport, which may perhaps be due to wrestling's vast history of functioning not only as a sport, but as a source of entertainment, particularly in 20th century traveling circuses.

1949 wrestling match (Photo by Stanley Kubrick via The Library of Congress)

The early 20th century marked the shift into the two distinct camps of 'Professional' wrestling and sport wrestling, exemplified by wrestling reentering the Olympic Games after a fifteen hundred year gap. Free-Style wrestling became an Olympic sport in 1904, with Greco-Roman following in 1912. Wrestling continued to be part of the touring entertainment culture in the twentieth century. Wrestlers, boxers, strongmen and women toured with troupes across the United States and in England, performing their athletic feats alongside of jugglers and acrobats.

By the middle of the 20th century, wrestling became clearly delineated into entertainment wrestling that was primarily staged, and sport wrestling practiced in schools and universities (sometimes known as scholastic wrestling) as well as the Olympics. And it seems like this clear historical demarcation between "professional" aka theatrical wrestling, and sport wrestling is what continues to inform UWW's commitment to keeping its Olympians amateur.

Whether or not some of the top professional boxers in the world will compete is another story. USA Boxing announced Thursday, June 2nd, that despite AIBA's declaration, neither the men's or the women's teams would include any professional fighters. Extraordinarily high-paid NBA players populate the U.S.A. Olympic Basketball team and perhaps in the future, the biggest names in professional boxing will do the same. And if, as some believe, boxing will decline due to the popularity of MMA, then the Olympics might be the thing that keeps boxing, both for amateur and professional fighters, in the Game.

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