amateur, in sports, one who engages in athletic competition without material recompense. Upper-class Englishmen in the 19th cent. used the concept to help define their social status, first applying the term to sportsmen who did not need to work with their hands as livelihood, later using it to describe anyone who competed without pay. By the beginning of the 20th cent., leaders of two major sports movements, the American intercollegiate athletic system and the Olympic Games (revived in 1896), had adopted amateurism, claiming it developed competitors who were morally superior to professionals. In a famous incident, Olympic officials stripped decathlete Jim Thorpe of two gold medals won at the 1912 Games because he had once accepted money to play baseball. Although almost all athletic structures not organized as professional ventures came to embrace amateurism as policy, athletes often subverted the code, forcing officials to constantly revise standards. From the outset, colleges allowed payment of educational expenses to athletes. In 1974, after Communist bloc nations had been subsidizing their athletes for two decades, the Olympics ceded to athletes the right to compensation for loss of salary during training, and shortly thereafter permitted professionals in sports whose governing bodies did not object. By the 1960s top-ranked golf and tennis amateurs had forced major tournaments to allow professional entrants. As evidenced by the return of Thorpe's medals in 1982, amateurism by the 1990s was a concept of diminished importance and one more of technical than moral distinction. The major organizations involved in the supervision of amateur athletics in the United States are the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), responsible for college and university sports, and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), responsible for most other areas of amateur competition.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See J. Lucas, The Modern Olympic Games (1980).
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