- The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism by Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves
Days before his death in 1937, modern Olympic movement founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin gave an interview in which he said, "Olympic amateurism is a stupid old question." Coubertin explained that "absolute amateurism … is impossible" and derided "the ridiculous concept which only enables millionaires to devote themselves to sport without doing violence to superseded dogmas" (97). Yet Coubertin's successors spent the next half-century wrestling with this "stupid old question."
Readers of Matthew P. Llewelyn and John Gleaves's fascinating new book will wonder why they bothered. In this short (196 pages of text), smartly organized, well-researched volume, the authors offer an answer. Llewelyn and Gleaves argue that amateurism "represented a philosophy of moral improvement" and had "a progressive and inclusive nature" (16). It spread "pervasively—eventually taking hold within Fascist dictatorships, Communist regimes, and progressive liberal democracies" (19). As the Olympics moved toward accepting open professionals in the 1980s, the road not taken included "liberal reforms" [End Page 117] that might have kept "the Olympics culturally relevant and commercially viable, while retaining a semblance of amateurism" (175).
Despite the authors' optimism about amateurism, their own research and analysis undercut the idea that "a semblance of amateurism" was worth retaining. As they admit, "amateurism … was an ideology without regulation, comprehension, conviction, or luster" (24). Contrary to beliefs widespread at the time and embraced with particular vigor by longtime IOC president Avery Brundage, amateurism was not a timeless, unchanging ideal handed down from ancient Greece. In fact, "the ancient Greeks lacked both the ideology and vocabulary of amateurism. They were fiercely competitive, well trained and lavishly remunerated professionals. Greek amateurism was a myth" (181–82). Amateurism was, in fact, an ideology conjured in Victorian England to exclude working classes from the games of their (imagined) betters. The reality of "systemic, state-sanctioned rule violations" (122) demonstrated that some regimes did not embrace amateurism so much as loudly proclaim adherence to it while shredding it in practice. The authors acknowledge, "Wherever amateurism reigned, hypocrisy hovered nearby" (48). The word "hypocrisy" appears frequently in this book.
The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism follows a chronological path through the various IOC presidents and international situations that shaped Olympic amateurism. It becomes clear Olympic leaders never found a successful approach to amateurism. Occasional, highly publicized enforcement efforts, like stripping Jim Thorpe's gold medals or banning runner Paavo Nurmi, in retrospect, look selective at best. Given his twenty-year IOC presidency and his devotion to the pure amateurism he embodied as an athlete, Brundage looms particularly large here. Fitting in with their larger approach, Llewellyn and Gleaves attempt to paint Brundage as an "astute pragmatist," but their research and analysis leave them more convincing when they concede he was "inconsistent, selective, naïve, and occasionally cowardly" (161). While proclaiming rhetorical devotion to the most draconian interpretation of amateurism, Brundage ignored wholesale violations by communist societies—and, it should be pointed out, athletes in his beloved track and field. (Particularly instructive is a comparison of his reactions to reported abuses in track and field at Mexico City and skiing at Grenoble and Sapporo.)
By the late 1980s, Olympians were no longer required to be amateur. The authors view this as a disappointment, and even skeptics of amateurism can understand that there was something good if intangible about the Olympics when genuine amateurs competed. One need not be a Brundageite to recognize the qualitative difference between the high-priced professionals who represented the United States in ice hockey from 1998 to 2014 and the 1960 U.S. Olympic team, which won gold with a roster that included a professional firefighter, a television ad salesman, a couple of carpenters, and a pair of insurance agents. Most of the 1960 Olympians were back at work the day after their gold-medal victory; only two even played in the National Hockey League, and only one had an NHL career...