Amateurism and anti-doping: a cautionary tale

Olympic Tattoo

In this featured article Dr Ben Koh outlines, what some may consider to be, an  obscure nexus between the growing complexity of anti-doping regulation and the history of amateurism in sport.  Dr Koh urges those setting anti-doping policy to learn lessons from the historical debate that centred around the eligibility of funded athletes to compete at the Olympic Games.

There is a popular perception that the ancient Olympics were closely linked to the ideal of amateurism — unpaid athletes competing for the love of the sport rather than for the money. An exploration of the root of such a perception will show this to be a historical hoax; the result of a concerted effort by various key stakeholders to mislead the public and influence modern sporting life.1 In truth, Olympic athletes of ancient Greece were not known to be amateurs and many athletes were generously rewarded for their sporting performances.2 Amateurism in the Olympics is in fact a modern concept.


The origins of amateurism

The original idea of amateurism in sport (or “physical culture”) was developed in 19th-century England as a means of preventing the working classes from competing against the aristocracy.3 The essence of amateurism is such that amateur sport participants engage largely or entirely without remuneration. The payment of money to amateur athletes has traditionally been viewed to be contrary to the very essence, and true meaning, of amateurism.1 In order for an athlete to be financially rewarded for sports performances, the athlete would have to become a professional.

Coubertin was one of the fathers of the modern Olympic games, and was responsible for organising the Games of the I Olympiad in 1896.4 Coubertin was also a member of the French aristocracy and Secretary of the French Educational Reform System. Coubertin strongly advocated for the English aristocratic amateurism ideal in the Olympic Movement5 and the British-style physical culture (“sports”) within the French education system.6 Coubertin was believed to be an Anglophile — who in the face of a concern with the growth of Germany’s rising power in Europe and abhorrence for Germany’s militaristic system of physical culture — and wanted to instil the English amateurism ideals. Coubertin felt that the English amateurism was the “moral hope for mankind” against a rising force of “the German menace” 6. The ideals of the Olympic movement were, therefore, nothing more than an attempt of projecting the desires and values of a neo-Humanists age into Greek antiquity; to create the idealised and romanticised picture of Classical athletes7. The Olympic Movement and ideals of amateurism were, therefore, part of a carefully engineered social marketing by Coubertin8, that, unfortunately, only deepened the chasm between the “programmatic pretensions” and the reality of the Olympic Games.7

Aware of the inequities of the amateur system and concerned with the long term viability of the Olympic games, Coubertin campaigned to have wealthy people come forward as "patrons" to support working-class athletes.9 But even with the support of the wealthy patrons, it was only the aristocracy that could afford the expense of pursuing sporting activities in this non-profit format. There was thus a mismatch between the Olympic ideals, and the financial realities faced by athletes.


Uncertainty of the regualtions

In the inter-World War periods, there was inconsistent and often confusing regulation of financial rewards (or compensation) in amateur sports. For example, the IAAF in 1948 stated that:

“An amateur may not directly or indirectly accept payment for any loss of time, salary or wages in attending, or training for any athletic competition…” but “… it will be permitted and not be considered as a violation of the amateur rule, for an athlete who is the SOLE support of his family, i.e. wife, children, mother or father, to be reimbursed by his National Association or Federation through his employer for loss of time, salary or wages during his absence after one day, when competing in Olympic Games, European Championships and official International Matches between Members of the I.A.A.F” (capitalisation in original).10

The IOC was also no better in regulating financial compensation for its athletes. The inconsistency of financial payments to Olympic athletes may have been contributed in part to Coubertin’s ideal of amateurism — which was perceived as exclusionary, elitist and discriminatory by overtly marginalising the working class — and a wider social context of the socialist and communist movements that occurred in the years prior to, and during the inter-World War periods. The new social order gave rise to a more vocal working class and created a climate of opposing anything that was considered elitism — which the “bourgeois” Olympics represented.8  In order for the Olympic Games to survive, the geopolitical issues demanded that a new Olympic Movement that was more democratic, popular and inclusive, and considered the financial practicalities of the proletariat was necessary. This new Movement was, however, directly contradictory to the founding ethos of Coubertin’s vision of the Olympics. A constant state of flux in the stance of the IOC on matters of financial payments to amateur athletes thus ensued for several decades to come.


Funding and loss of earnings

Two issues featured in the amateur-professional debate for the IOC: one was refunding of expenses and the other was loss-of-earnings. As early as 1905, the IOC agreed that amateurs could have expenses refunded.  But even on this relatively straight forward issue, various international sport associations had different definitions of what constituted “expenses”.6 The other issue of loss-of-earnings compensation was more complex. Although the IOC “officially” forbade the compensation for loss-of-earnings in 1925 (the IOC recognised that Denmark and Norway allowed in their rules for the payment to their Olympic athletes for loss-of-earnings), the IOC later reversed this decision in 1927. The reversal was likely the result of lobbying by Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)4 and the IOC’s reluctance to cancel the soccer tournament in the 1928 Olympic games — which would have occurred had professional soccer players not been allowed to play. However, after the 1928 Olympic games, the IOC rescinded their most recent decision of allowing loss-of-earnings compensation. This repeal may have been in response to Britain’s soccer representatives who had boycotted the 1928 Olympic games in protest of the IOC’s decision to accept FIFA’s demand.  

In the period between 1950-1970, the ongoing issue of financial compensation for athletes faced an added dimension of complexity. The post-World War II era of capitalist empire building witnessed National Olympic Committees (NOC) using the Olympic Games as an international platform to showcase national strength and vitality.11 As a result, from 1950 to 1970, the amount of time athletes spent training doubled (and even tripled for some sports) in many countries. The training regime that athletes go through in those countries that had embarked on a systematic and intensive sporting programme also saw their athletes starting at earlier ages than before. This meant that in practice, these amateur athletes were no different from full time professional athletes.

Finally in 1971, the IOC eliminated the term amateur athlete from the Olympic Charter and replaced the term Olympic competitor.12 This was possibly to (covertly) reflect the (complicit) reality that Olympic athletes were being financially compensated through various means — e.g. commercial product endorsements, Eastern European countries state subsidies, Western governments sport University scholarships — without actually publicly endorsing the hypocrisy of the situation. The IOC eligibility rules (1962 to 1974) still stated that competitors "… must always have participated in sport as an avocation without material gain of any kind…".2 13 This resulted in a situation whereby Olympic athletes remained amateurs on paper, but were in practice, professionals.14 A growing gap since the post-World War II period was thus occurring between the zero-tolerance, hard line, official rhetoric of the amateur code and the commercial reality of high-performance sport. The pragmatics of honest athletes who were publicly punished after admitting to having gained financially from sport10 15 further served to keep the omertà amongst athletes — and those involved in high-performance sport — strong. Rather than promoting virtue, good sportsmanship and honesty, the amateur code encouraged athletes to be insincere, deceitful, and corrupt so as to retain their eligibility to compete as amateur athletes.14


 The need for change

Besides the need for change the issues of financial practicalities, there was another down side to the ideals of amateurism in the Olympics. Because top professional athletes were excluded, the amateur code meant that the Olympics did not see the best (honest) athletes in the world compete. This situation remained and was not addressed until 1974. In the 75th IOC session in 1974, the IOC finally accepted the (financial) reality of world-class sport and recognised the impracticality of the Olympic Movement’s founding principles of, and Coubertin’s financially unencumbered ideal of, amateurism. A new Eligibility Code was thus introduced into the Olympic Charter, and stated in Rule 26 that to be eligible for participation in the Olympic games:

“a competitor must: observe and abide by the Rules of the IOC and in addition the Rules and Regulations of his or her International [Sport] Federation [ISF], as approved by the IOC, even if the federation rules are more strict than those of the IOC... [and] not have received any financial rewards or material benefit in connection with his or her sports participation, except as permitted in the bye-laws to this Rule”.16

Under the new rules, athletes could, under the Charter’s bye-laws, now officially receive financial benefit and material rewards for their sport participation.16

Although letting the ISFs bear the responsibility of determining financial benefits for their athletes meant a delegation (or more pertinently, the abdication) of the IOC’s role on the matter, giving the ISFs control over participation eligibility also meant that, in their drive to grow public interest for their sport, strong incentives were created within ISFs to allow increasingly professionalised athletes into amateur competitions, and for ISFs to remove restrictions on fully professionalised, world-class, high-performance athletes.11 What this means is that Coubertin’s vision of the Olympic games of “chivalrous athletic effort” and the romantic notion of “the [amateur] athlete [enjoying] his efforts… [and] enjoyment [that] remains internal… [like] the joy of nature and the flights of art… radiant with sunlight, exalted by music, framed in the architecture of porticoes… [and part of] a religious feeling…”11, was replaced by an unqualified intensity for competition, commercial interests, focus on winning, and full-time professional dedication to the sport. This change in dogma thus paved the way for professional athletes in all sports, including the Olympics.


Admission of professional athletes

Although largely symbolic by that time, the IOC voted in 1988 to formally allow all professional athletes to compete in the Olympics, subject to the approval of the international federations in charge of each sport.9 All but three federations eventually went along with the initial lifting of restrictions promoted by the IOC: Boxing and baseball continued to forbid professionals, while soccer had agreed to allow three professionals on their roster in addition to the professionals under the age of 23, against whom there is no prohibition.17 Without financial restrictions, the term “amateur” as is used in sports today is therefore essentially a vestige of its history. Many different ISF today adopt different positions on the term “amateur” for their sport1 and the separation between professional and amateur sports has now become less distinct. Winning had become the fundamental ethos of the contemporary Olympic Movement. As such, any scientifically valid, technologically-assisted pursuit that pushes the limits of human physical performance is now accepted as crucial to the Olympic games: any means necessary in that pursuit, including open access to finances, is deemed legitimate, and fair.11


Parallels between the history of amateur sport and anti-doping

The historical context of financial rewards and amateur sports has parallels in anti-doping in sports. The original ideal of amateur sport was characterised by participation for the love of the sport, and to address the issue of “lacked of drive and passion” and “living in greyness” of society’s youths11, and not for extrinsic rewards. While intrinsic motivations are still relevant, once the permission for monetary rewards for athletes and the necessary consequences of an exaggerated importance of winning occurred, a greater risk of athletes using performance enhancing drugs to win was also created18. And although the issue of financial gains are now resolved, the ideals (and pitfalls) of amateurism in sport persist in the current anti-doping concept of the Spirit of Sport. And much like the historical events of finances in amateurism, the hypocrisy of official rhetoric versus pragmatic realities persists. For example, at the IOC meeting in 2005, baseball and softball were voted out of the 2012 London Olympics apparently because the drug-testing provisions of major league baseball’s collective bargaining agreement were more lenient than WADA’s rules19. In contrast, road cycling remained in the Olympic programme despite apparent widespread, enduring abuse of anti-doping rules by both the athletes and officials of the sport’s governing body — Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) — alike.20 21 In another example, an international cycling competition for 2013 was cancelled with the reason given by organisers that the decision to cancel the event was because the financial costs involved in complying with the UCI rules regarding drug testing would be too onerous.22

If financial costs involved in reinforcing anti-doping rules in sports increases ⎯ as a result of WADA rules become stricter ⎯ a possible future scenario would be that eventually only “wealthy” sports and organisers are able to conduct competitions. This situation whereby only financially secured organisers are able to organise “anti-doping compliant” competitions harks back to the days when only rich aristocrats were able to compete in “amateur” competitions.


Sean Cottrell

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