There was a time when only amateurs were allowed to compete in the Olympics.

It seems strange now thinking back on it, especially given how many boxes of Wheaties have proudly displayed an Olympic champion.

But I do remember thinking how odd it was that if a gold medal-winning figure skater joined Stars on Ice for a tour or two they would be forfeiting the right to ever compete in the Olympics again. How were they to feed themselves, free cereal aside?

When the modern Olympics first started, they were considered a gentleman’s affair. A spotlight shining down on the athleticism of the aristocrats. That was the way of things in the years leading up to and including the 1800s.

When Pierre de Coubertin brought the Olympics into the modern era, he did so with his much-admired “healthy body, healthy mind” philosophy that he borrowed from the English public school system.

Back in those days, gentlemen, young and old, weren’t expected to specialize in any one sport but rather be able to participate in multiple sports. Think of the Royal family, Princess Anne and Zara Tindall aside (they’re both Olympians)—King Charles and his two prince sons can play polo, cricket, rugby and I dare say croquet. The intention was to be well-versed in sport.

Being an Amateur

The word amateur stems from the Latin amare meaning “to love” or amator, meaning “lover”.

Ergo, the word amateur and the idea of sport means that one participates in sport for no other reason than the love of the game.

Just as it is in the horse world, amateurs often view their sport through a different lens than a professional. For amateurs, it can be as much about the participating as it is the socializing. They are spending money at the shows while the professionals are making money.

To retain your amateur status, you cannot profit from your sport. At horse shows amateurs and professionals compete against one another all the time. But as the pros can be tricky to beat. Some disciplines have amateur classes to give us regulars Joes a fighting chance, at least for a round or two.

Pierre de Coubertin felt by keeping the Olympics for amateur athletes only the playing field would remain nice and level. The aristocratic athletes wouldn’t be out there training away like a professional athlete would. Yes, there would be some training, but the wealthy gents of the day also had to make enough money to buy fancy suits and keep the heat on.

For example, Roger Bannister, the Englishman who broke the four-minute mile in 1954, was a neurologist by trade and an overachiever by nature.

The Struggle

Having only amateurs compete at the Olympics looked good on paper. However, the ladies and gents struggled to compete against the athletes who came from Eastern Bloc countries, such as Russia and East Germany.

These countries walked the finest of lines between what is and is not considered an amateur as they sponsored their full-time athletes. They weren’t making money as such but were groomed to compete with expenses paid. That was stiff competition for a fleet of foot neurologists from England.

The IOC took amateurism seriously, though not seriously enough to question those Eastern Bloc countries, but never mind that.

Over a century ago, Jim Thorpe, one of America’s greatest athletes, had his two gold medals (decathlon and pentathlon) from the 1912 Games striped because he was once given a bit of money to play semi-pro baseball. This handing over of money broke the amateur code. True amateurs play for the love of the sport, not for the love of money. Simple as.

Thorpe’s medals were eventually returned, but they came 70 years after his death.

And Then Came TV

Despite the IOC’s determination to keep everyone’s motives pure, when the invention of the TV rolled into town it cast a different light on things. TVs meant the potential for a huge audience, which in turn meant a jolly good place to advertise and the dangling carrot was simply too big for the IOC to ignore.

Oh, the money that could be made if sponsorship, advertising and other money-churning schemes were allowed! The athletes, both amateurs and professionals would clamber at the chance to compete for gold medal glory with financial endorsements waiting in the wings. At least that’s what I assume the IOC thought.  

The first televised Olympics were the 1968 Mexico City Games, which was a pretty quick turnaround time given TVs only started entering homes in the 1950s. But that’s the power of sport.

The powers that be were starting to realize it may be time to change things up. The line between amateur and professional athletes was blurring. The influx of doping was skewing results. Major international conflicts appeared to be subsiding. And the money. So much money. Perhaps it was time to dash the idea of amateurism.  

And so, slowly but surely a few sports here and there were given the right to allow pros to compete. It wasn’t until 1992, however, that all Olympic sports were opened for professionals and amateurs alike. And now here we are, on the brink of the XXXIII Olympiad taking place in Paris just as it did in 1900 and 1924, only this time open to anyone who runs fast enough and jumps high enough.  

Without a Doubt

Despite the luring nature of money and doping, watching the Olympic Games is, without a doubt, one of my favorite pastimes. And isn’t it comforting to know that figure skaters can now join the Ice Capades during those slower months between the Olympic Games?