When Pierre de Coubertin, the French founder of the modern Olympic movement, first envisioned the quadrennial spectacle (for the first twenty-eight years of their existence, the games were strictly a summer affair), the stipulation that athletes must be of amateur status was central to his plan. This provision was based on the somewhat flawed understanding that in ancient Greece those competing in the games had all been amateur athletes. In reality, athletes were regularly awarded money and goods for their achievements. and the word athlete itself is related to the ancient Greek words for “money” and “prize.” Nevertheless, the policy persisted, leading to such bizarre scenarios as that in which (for quite some time) aristocratic officers were allowed to participate in riding events while enlisted men were not (the presumption being that the latter needed the salary that horsemanship regularly earned them, whereas the former happily did not). Swiss and Austrian skiers boycotted the 1936 Olympic to protest the exclusion of ski instructors, who received money because of their sporting skill. And in perhaps the most famous/infamous turn of all, American runner Jim Thorpe was stripped of his gold medals for the decathlon and pentathlon (the part-Native American Thorpe had won first place in a stunning nine out of a combined fifteen events) when it was discovered he had played semi-professional baseball for one season while in high school (a practice then common among young athletes, most of whom, unlike Thorpe, declined to play under their real names).
Since that time, rules regulating the amateur status of Olympians have been steadily relaxed. In the early- to mid-20th century, the breakdown of traditional class structures made the concept of the aristocratic athlete somewhat out-of-date. And during the Cold War, state-sponsored “amateur” athletes from Communist countries–nominal students or garbage collectors who were trained full-time at the state’s expense–led to a further deterioration of these rules. For the 2012 games, only boxing and wrestling bar professional athletes. Not all “professionals” are equal, of course: a professional badminton player from Denmark might mistake the digits on Kobe Bryant’s paycheck for the number of citizens in his country. So perhaps it’s better to remember that the root of the word amateur is the Latin amator, meaning lover or one who loves. To get as good as these athletes are, you have to love the game. // Patrick Barrett