- The End of Amateurism in American Track and Field
For much of the history of modern sport the ideal of “amateurism” represented the prevailing ethos. As with so much of modern sport, amateurism emerged from Great Britain in the nineteenth century and prevailed well into the twentieth. But whatever its ideals, amateurism always represented a fiction, established by elites for elites, and rarely reflected sport as it was played at its highest levels.
Indeed, amateurism was not merely perpetrated by elites, it served to protect the status of those elites by making it virtually impossible for anyone other than the independently wealthy to compete in sport at the highest levels. And under this system coaching for pay was verboten and early on even physical labor served to disqualify athletes from amateur status. A sporting ethos that excludes working-class and even middle-class athletes simply because they actually use their bodies to toil is not really an ethos about sports at all but rather one about privilege. Nonetheless this was precisely what the “amateur ideal” required in its earliest, Victorian manifestation.
It was against this backdrop that the modern sport of track and field (once known as “parambulation,” commonly known across the world as “athletics”) developed. In the United States, track and field emerged almost concurrently with its governing body, the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU), which after its creation in 1888 oversaw not just track and field but a host of sports. And the AAU deeply committed itself to the amateur model of sport even when the internal logic of that model fell apart in the face of the reality that flesh and blood athletes faced.
Joseph Turrini’s fine book explores amateurism and its discontents in American elite track and field. Turrini tells the story of the emergence of the AAU as the dominant force in governing American running, jumping, and throwing events and as important he shows the long-standing resistance to that organization’s utter control of the sport and thus of the athletes within it. Today elite track athletes can earn salaries comparable to those in many other sports. The stars at the pinnacle of track and field are multi-millionaire athletes. But the professionalization of track is a new phenomenon.
At the heart of Turrini’s story is not just a history of track and field but also a history of labor relations in sport. Whatever the amateur ethos demanded, the relationship of athletes to the AAU (as well as the International Amateur Athletics Federation, or IAAF, and the International Olympic Committee, the IOC) was usually one of an uncompensated, or at least dramatically under-compensated, labor force in the face of a monopolistic governing body. It is this dynamic between athletes and the power brokers that makes [End Page 202] Turrini’s story so compelling. There have been many histories of labor relations in sports, particularly regarding the major team sports such as baseball and the game the rest of the world calls football. There have been some histories of track and field, though those histories have oftentimes been embedded within larger histories of the Olympics. Turrini’s main contributions are to focus on track and field and particularly to emphasize the labor relations embedded within this putatively amateur sport, at least throughout the bulk of the twentieth century.
Turrini starts off with the long period from the 1820s to the 1940s when as his chapter title indicates, “The Amateurs Take Control.” For much of the nineteenth century those who could run fast (or far) or jump or throw could occasionally take advantage of that skill through stakes matches. Informal and ungoverned, these competitions nonetheless were popular in a pre-modern sporting world. But by the Victorian era with the emergence of the amateur ethos, this informality changed, as did the attitude toward compensating athletes, at least among that slice of the population that was able to gain power in various sporting bodies, including the sports clubs that popped up throughout American...