Review of The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism

Llewellyn Matthew P., and John Gleaves. The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. Pp. 272. Notes, Index. $19.95 paperback.  

Reviewed by Benjamin Dettmar

As I write this review, the sporting world is still digesting one of the great college football games in recent memory. Clemson beat Alabama 35:31 on a last second play to deliver a second national title to the Tigers. The game was watched by millions, it made millions of dollars for TV networks, and the coaches of both teams were paid handsomely for their efforts. The players, the individuals responsible for all the money that was generated, received nothing. This seems absurd but it is not unique in the world of sports history.

olympic-amateurism

University of Illinois Press, 2016

The idea of competing for the sake of competition and attempting to win simply for personal glory is, to some, the very essence of sport. Amateurism, and the many trials and tribulations that came with it, dominated the first century of the modern Olympics. Matthew P. Llewellyn and John Gleaves in The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism use the lens of amateurism to bring us a fresh and unique take on the history of the Olympic Games.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism. The popularity and importance of the Olympics has ensured that the history of the Games has been extensively researched and written. Llewellyn and Gleaves have managed to find an angle that not only informs the reader of the intricacies of amateurism and how it came to dominate the Games but also gives fresh insight into other Olympic stories. The book is intelligently written and very well researched. There is a worthwhile mix of archival (Llewellyn and Gleaves hit all the holy grails of Olympics research) and secondary sources and it is clear that the authors have left no stone unturned in telling the story of the rise and fall of Olympic amateurism. Not a criticism as such but this does lead to an extremely academic book. Sports historians, sociologists, and even economists will find the book riveting, but it is probably not the tome to give as a gift to someone who watches gymnastics once every four years.

The image that adorns the cover of the book, perhaps the greatest US Olympian of all time Jim Thorpe, was obviously carefully selected and is the perfect vehicle for discussing the ridiculous way the IOC dealt with “amateur” athletes. The authors do a fantastic job discussing how the vagaries of the IOC’s rules meant that each country and indeed each sport had different regulations regarding what it meant to be an amateur. This confusion over amateur rules are what led to Olympians such as Thorpe being treated so poorly by the IOC. The treatment of athletes like Thorpe, and later Paavo Nurmi, play a key role in showing how it was largely the athletes themselves that suffered as the IOC dillydallied over the definition of amateurism. Thorpe famously had his Olympic titles taken away (they were returned posthumously) and Nurmi was prevented from competing at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. Both athletes fell afoul of the IOC’s strict rules of amateurism. Yet, as the authors highlight, a great many Olympic athletes of this era were “shamateurs” whose status was determined by the will of the governing body of their sport. One only need to think about the aforementioned football game to realize that this “shamateur” athlete has not been consigned to history.

The real strength of Llewellyn and Gleaves’ work, however, is how they complicate our implicit knowledge on IOC ineptitude, the failure of amateurism, and timeline of professionalism in Olympic sports. It is easy to project a linear timeline that saw an all amateur version of the modern Olympics until the departure of the much maligned Avery Brundage in 1972; indeed, the treatment of Thorpe and Nurmi could be testament to that. We then, so the perceived wisdom goes, see a period where professional athletes slowly begin to infiltrate the Games until we get to 1992 and the Dream Team in Barcelona. Like all convenient narratives, however, this is too simple. Llewellyn and Gleaves show the reader that there were professional athletes at the earliest incarnation of the modern Games, that Thorpe and especially Nurmi were indeed “shamateurs” who despite being treated badly by the IOC did indeed break the rules of the time. They even manage to show that Avery Brundage himself, despite being “inconsistent, selective, naïve, and occasionally cowardly”, was also “ideologically flexible” and an “astute pragmatist” (p.161). At one point I thought we were going to get a complete revisionist history of Avery Brundage as an enlightened and forward thinking leader (I will not hold my breath for this book) and although Llewellyn and Gleaves ultimately depict Brundage as a Sisyphus type figure pushing his boulder of amateurism up the Olympic hill their depiction of the much maligned IOC President is kinder than many he has received.

The book is inevitably centered on the United States and Europe. The authors are associate professors of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton and their research trips took them to, amongst other places, the IOC archives in Lausanne and The Avery Brundage Archives at the University of Illinois (who published the book). The Olympic Games and the IOC, particularly in the early and mid-twentieth century, were dominated from the top down by the US and Europe and indeed the canon of historical and sociological work on the Games is also centered on Europe and the US. This is not the book that changes that. There is a useful section on amateurism and the third world but this seemed to be more a footnote to the story that was being told than anything that added real substance to the authors’ argument.

Ultimately The Rise and Fall of Olympic Amateurism confirms just how difficult and ridiculous it was for the IOC to try and remain amateur for as long as it did but also just how complicated the journey of amateurism was throughout the twentieth century. Llewellyn and Gleaves’ work is at its strongest when it is using amateurism to tell the history of the Olympics but their book also allows a tangential look at events such as the much written about 1936 Berlin Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ solidarity salute in 1968, and the Games of the Cold War. The wrinkles that the lens of amateurism adds to these well-known events will interest all sports historians. The heroes of the book are undoubtedly the many athletes who suffered under the auspices of amateurism and the reader cannot help but feel for the competitors who were forced to peddle this myth whilst the IOC made more and more money as the twentieth century progressed. The authors do a marvelous job highlighting the rise of amateurism from its stoic British roots, through Baron Pierre de Coubertin and other IOC Presidents to its de facto champion in Avery Brundage. The real benefit of the book, however, is that they also manage to show just how complicated and convoluted this journey was and indeed continues to be. Highly recommended.

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.

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