Amateur Sports

Amateurism in sport is at once ideology, a network of sports organizations, and a system of athletic eligibility. First articulated in Victorian England – there is absolutely no substance to the International Olympic Committee’s oft made claim that amateurism governed the athletics of ancient Greece – amateurism melded the upper class desire for social hierarchy with the middle class belief in education, self discipline, and social responsibility. The amateur ideal has always been to improve individuals and society by instilling the values of hard work, team sacrifice, and fair play, and inspiring community pride through inspirational performances. Amateurism resonated with the aspiration to ‘‘rational’’ or ‘‘improving’’ recreation that led urban reformers and the respectable working class to start public libraries, adult education classes, community orchestras and theater companies, public playgrounds, and children’s summer camps.

In sport, amateurs sought to enforce adherence to their beliefs through a system of eligibility known as the amateur code. The first codes required competitors to be gentlemen, excluding women, workers, and, in some countries, aboriginals and persons of color simply on the basis of their status. As sports organizations became more meritocratic, in the face of growing working class political power, the spread of democratic ideas, and the outstanding performances of black and aboriginal ‘‘professional’’ athletes, amateur governing bodies replaced the ascriptive code with rules that required participants to adhere to the value of disinterested play. The adoption of amateurism in 1894 by the newly formed International Olympic Committee (IOC) for its quadrennial Olympic Games gave enormous affirmation and clout to this system of regulation and, in many countries, linked it strongly to nationalism. By World War I (1914–18), the principal test of eligibility in most international, national, and local governing bodies, including educational and faith based leagues, was whether an athlete had accepted monetary benefit from his participation or had ever played with or against a professional (i.e., someone who had accepted pay for play).

Although the prohibition against remuneration discouraged working class participation, especially during periods of high unemployment, it encouraged those who could afford to participate to combine athleticism with education and careers and realize the ideals. Not surprisingly, amateurism drew its greatest strength from the male urban middle class. It resonated with their belief in education, self discipline, and social order, and enabled them to win most of the prizes. In many countries, the advocacy of amateur sports also contributed to the development of more universal programs of sport development in state schools and municipal recreation departments. But when strictly enforced, the amateur rules had telling consequences. Those deemed to have violated them were usually banished from amateur competition, without any of the basic rights of ‘‘natural justice’’ or due process. When the aboriginal American Jim Thorpe, who won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm by overwhelming margins, was reported to have received $25 a month for playing baseball, he was stripped of his medals and records. Numerous other athletes met the same fate at the hands of international, national, and local amateur officials. In many countries, the definition of an amateur, and its interpretation and enforcement, often divided clubs, coaches, athletes, and entire sports into warring factions. Not surprisingly, during the heyday of amateurism, the public and scholarly discourse was almost entirely preoccupied by these debates.

By the 1960s, the pressures against a strict financial definition of amateurism had grown to the point where they threatened to split the entire network of Olympic and amateur sports organizations worldwide. The rapid post war growth of spectator sports in the capitalist world gave athletes the incentive to train and compete on a full time basis and sporting goods manufacturers and event impresarios the revenue with which to pay them, while the state financed victories of Soviet bloc athletes in international competitions gave western sports leaders the rationale for liberalization. In 1974, the IOC dropped the term ‘‘amateur’’ from its eligibility code and gave member International Federations the right to set the terms of participation. By 1983, virtually all prohibitions against athletes receiving remuneration were dropped in Olympic sports. These changes were accompanied by new scholarship, which focused on the ‘‘social control’’ represented by amateurism and ‘‘rational recreation’’ and the socioeconomic status of those who benefited.

While amateurism has disappeared as a code of eligibility, the ideas it represents remain as strong as ever. The amateur ideal continues to provide motivation and legitimation for the vast network of public and voluntary sports organizations in the developed world, as any award banquet speech or appeal to private or government sponsors will attest. Beginning in the early 1990s, the amateurs’ claim that sport can serve as a vehicle for education, health, and citizenship has also begun to inform a new wave of ‘‘rational recreation’’ for children and youth ‘‘at risk’’ in the ravaged areas of the developing world, and in international development assistance, particularly at the United Nations. In 2003, the General Assembly endorsed the idea of sport as a major tool of development and peace, and declared 2005 the International Year of Physical Education and Sport. Even the Olympic Movement has retained the structure of amateur regulation in the strict prohibitions against performance enhancing drugs it now enforces through the World Anti Doping Organization. Not all of these interventions are progressive, as concerns about the ‘‘assimilative reform’’ implicit in such well publicized programs as ‘‘Midnight basketball’’ in US inner cities make clear. There is much social scientists can contribute to our understanding of these changes and continuities through an analysis of the auspices of contemporary forms of amateurism and the impacts upon/resistance by the peoples involved.


  1. Allison, L. (2001) Amateurism in Sport: An Analysis and a Defence. Frank Cass, London.
  2. Bailey, P. (1978) Leisure and Class in Victorian Eng land: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
  3. Morrow, D. (1986) A Case Study in Amateur Conflict: The Athletic War in Canada, 1906 08. British Journal of Sport History 3(2): 173-90.
  4. Pitter, R. & Andrews, D. L. (1997) Serving America’s Underserved Youth: Reflections on Sport and Recreation in an Emerging Social Problems Industry. Quest 49(1): 85-99.

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