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Amateurism and Thorpe’s tragic tale

Published : Jul 14, 2016, 11:26 pm IST
Updated : Jul 14, 2016, 11:26 pm IST

The word ‘amateur’ is hardly used in a positive sense these days. Etymologically, though, it doesn’t have a negative connotation.

Jim Thorpe
 Jim Thorpe

The word ‘amateur’ is hardly used in a positive sense these days. Etymologically, though, it doesn’t have a negative connotation. Borrowed from Latin, it’s original meaning was “to love.” The word was always contentious at the Olympics throughout the 20th century. Some people with a vested interest in the International Olympic Committee used its literal definition to punish some legendary athletes.

Amateurism, which advocated doing something for love, was a ploy devised by English aristocrats in the second half of the 19th century to keep the working classes away from organised sports. They wanted to ensure that sports remained an exclusive preserve of the haves. Initially, the concept was widely used in athletics to forbid those who had accepted a prize or money in competition, from amateur clubs and meets.

In Victorian England, artisans, mechanics and labourers were deliberately kept away from sporting activities. In other words, the door to playgrounds was shut on those who worked to make a living. Even though a Frenchman was the brain behind the modern Olympics, the rules of the Games owed their origin to England. A succession of Olympic chiefs held on to amateurism as if it was the driving force that kept the Games going.

Even legendary Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi faced the wrath of the IOC over charging “too much” money for a trip to Germany in 1929. Nurmi was prevented from taking part at the 1932 Games as he was deemed to have violated the principles of amateurism. None, however, suffered more at the hands of the IOC than USA’s Jim Thorpe.

Thorpe, who was of mixed ancestry, including Native American, was a supremely talented all-round athlete. He blew away the field to win gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Although Thorpe hadn’t taken part in the decathlon before, he finished on top with a mark that would have won him a silver medal at the 1948 Games.

After giving Thorpe a prize, Swedish king Gustav V told the American: “You are the greatest athlete in the world.” But Thorpe’s idyllic world came crashing down when the IOC took away his medals and struck his name from the record books in 1913 on charges that he had earned $25 a week for playing minor league baseball in 1909 and 1910.

Thorpe didn’t contest the charge but he pleaded that he hadn’t known the amateur rules. But the mandarins of the IOC showed him no mercy. Thorpe said bitterly: “Rules are like steam rollers. There is nothing they won’t do to flatten the man who stands in their way.”

After losing his amateur status, Thorpe pulled on by playing baseball and football with some success. The earnings were, however, not enough and he fell on hard times. Thorpe’s final days were steeped in poverty. The man who would finish third in IOC’s poll of the greatest athlete of the century died a pauper in 1953. Efforts to overturn the ban on Thorpe finally paid dividends in 1982 and the two gold medals were returned to his family the next year.

The IOC opened the gates to professionals in almost all sports in 1988 and the Olympics would never be the same again as USA’s Dream Team took basketball by storm at the 1992 Barcelona Games.