Amateurism Alive and Well At the Olympic Games

Tommie Smith and John Carlos
Should the IOC be in the business of controlling athletes’ behavior outside of the field of play?

Avery Brundage would be proud knowing that amateurism remains alive and well in the Olympic Games. Oh sure, athletes are paid to compete. Brundage lost that fight. But the moral code of amateurism still allows the IOC to police athletes’ behaviors in ways identical to those under their old Amateur Code.

After spending a week at the IOC Olympic Studies Center pouring over archived correspondences and internal meeting minutes with my good friend, colleague, and co-author on the forthcoming work The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism, Dr. Matthew Llewellyn, a number of key points about amateurism are clear.  Paying athletes, which many people associate with the professional/amateur dichotomy, was only a small part of amateurism. More importantly, amateurism was a moral code that embodied Victorian ideals about masculinity, social class, muscular Christianity, and morality.

So how does it live on today? One large relic of amateurism is the anti-doping rule. As I have argued elsewhere, anti-doping rules emerged from amateur ideals in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, anti-doping rests upon principles of health, fair play, and the spirit of sport. These same three principles also rested at the heart of the amateur moral code.

More importantly, amateurism lives on in the way that the IOC controls athletes’ behavior. Dress codes and control of social media are but a few ways the IOC continues to ensure that athletes maintain the same moral character demanded previously in amateur sports. For example, Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter prevents threatens to expel athletes from the Olympic Games for tweeting about any of their personal sponsors (heaven forbid the athletes interrupt the IOC’s own marketing campaign). If athletes cannot tweet about their sponsors, how professional are they really? Also, if athletes’ tweets are judged offensive or somehow scandalous, they also risk dismissal from the Games. Racist or provocative tweets have already landed some athletes in hot water.

Now I don’t condone racism at all and I believe athletes have legal and moral obligations to avoid hateful speech, but removing athletes from sporting events over voicing opinions has risks. By controlling what athletes say and do, they are maintaining the same control once mandated through the old Amateur Code (now re-branded simply as the Eligibility Code). The IOC may not like that some athletes are shameless corporate shills or (even racist ones), but I fail to see why they have a mandate to control athletes’ behavior in ways that few recognized governments can (China and Iran also police their citizen’s twitter accounts).

Under Avery Brundage, the IOC fought tooth and nail to maintain control over athletes. While preventing athletes from profiting on their athletic career was one aspect (since the Code believed that athletes who profited could not also participate in sport as an avocation), the main component was ensuring that sport was practiced in a specific way. Those who failed to practice sport in such a way were excluded. And by continuing to exclude athletes who fail to embody the amateur–ahem, I mean eligibility– ideals of the IOC, Brundage would be proud.

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2 Responses to Amateurism Alive and Well At the Olympic Games

  1. Matt Llewellyn says:

    Great job John!

    I think the badminton saga supports your thesis: not trying hard enough is now cause for disqualification….Wow!!

    On another note, stop giving away our ideas :)

  2. John Gleaves says:

    Thanks Matt-

    I hadn’t heard about the badminton issue until you mentioned it. Now that I looked into it, that is interesting point.

    It was great working with you in Lausanne and can’t wait to get back to Fullerton and get cracking. See you soon.

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