Push to allow professional athletes took hold in 1968 Olympic Games

Avery Brundage, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), addresses a meeting of the IOC at the Foro Italico in Rome, Italy, in 1965. Brundage was against allowing athletes to train for more than four to six weeks or allowing professionals to compete in the Olympics. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the seminal moment of the Mexico City Games, when Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a black-gloved fist from the medals podium, GlobalSport Matters looks back at the year from a global sporting perspective. From the World Series helping a wounded Detroit heal to athletic innovations that trace their origins to those Olympics, 1968 served as a critical pivot point in the role sports plays in society and introduced the modern era of athlete activism. To see all of our stories, please click here.

The athletes’ amateur status was a point of pride for the Olympic movement for decades.

Any participant who accepted financial benefit for their performance was considered professional, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) acted quickly to cast out anyone who attempted to tip-toe that line.

The word amateur is derived from the Latin term, amator, which means lover. Preserving the purity of the games by allowing to compete only those who did so simply because of a love of their craft, allowed the IOC to seemingly be untainted by the culture of cheating and scandal that was deeply entrenched in professional sport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

That distinction and its enforcement were what made the Olympics, the Olympics. Right?

Even Avery Brundage, the IOC president from 1952-1972 and a staunch supporter of preserving amateurism in the Olympics, said in 1955: “We can only rely on the support of those who believe in the principles of fair play and sportsmanship embodied in the amateur code in our efforts to prevent the games from being used by individuals, organizations or nations for ulterior motives.”

So how did regulations regarding sponsorship and amateur code change so significantly from the beginning of the modern Olympic Games to now?

After World War II, the forces that drove the Olympic sports world were drastically different than before the war. The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, in particular, served as the catalyst for change. They were the first to be broadcast around the world in color and with state-of-the-art technology and expert commentary set the gold standard of coverage of future Olympic Games.

However, while coverage of the Mexico City Games was overshadowed by political statements, arguably the most important development from the games was the clash of beliefs and shockwaves created over the core Olympic philosophy: amateurism.

Pre- 1968

Amateurism at the birth of the modern Olympic Games was of paramount importance.

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the ancient institution of international competition in the 1894 Paris Congress, two sub-committees that would govern competition were created: the Olympic committee and the Amateurism committee.

At this point in the history of the games, amateurism was less about the creation of a standard for purity and equality in competition.

According to a 2006 essay written by Simon Fraser University professor Richard Gruneau de Coubertin was primarily concerned about recreating the ‘aesthetic’ of sport, in addition to simply participating in it, a quality of the origins of the Games in ancient Greece that they placed so much emphasis on.

Gruneau said, “these aesthetics – of classically-sculpted male bodies; mythical flames and torches; flags, ritual ceremonies and mass displays; paintings, sculptures, hymns and poetry; and public incantations of honour and duty – briefly gave amateur sport a cultural status that no form of sport in western life ever had in the past.”

While the word amateur at this point was still relatively unknown and undefined, de Coubertin gave it a strong ideological tie to the Olympics that proved very difficult to one day strip away.

The popularity of the Olympics began to grow during the major international conflicts in the early 1900s. The international bragging rights that came along with winning Olympic events on a grand stage gave the IOC an unprecedented amount of publicity.

"These aesthetics – of classically-sculpted male bodies; mythical flames and torches; flags, ritual ceremonies and mass displays; paintings, sculptures, hymns and poetry; and public incantations of honour and duty – briefly gave amateur sport a cultural status that no form of sport in western life ever had in the past.” - Simon Fraser University professor Richard Gruneau

Because amateurs were competing, the playing field seemed even when it came to Olympic competition. The battlefield was ruled by the best militaries, but the track could be conquered by anyone who put their mind to it.

The environment brought about feelings of nationalism in every participating country that amateurs – regular athletes who love their craft – could end up being national heroes.

However, issues with the institution of amateurism began to surface throughout the early and middle years of the 1900s.

Competition breeds innovation, so while the national importance and coverage of the Olympics began to grow, so did the hunger and willingness to do what it took to win.  

Doping at the Olympic Games began to spread in the 1950s and 60s as technological advancements in medicine allowed it, and as athletes began to realize the edge they could gain by using.

Doping to enhance physical performance in competition was seen historically as something only acceptable in professional competition, doing whatever it takes to win regardless of the consequences. Amateurs using drugs however attacked the purity of the Olympic movement.

It became apparent to Brundage that changes to the IOC Olympic structure and rules were imminent.

Mexico City Games in 1968

The Mexico City Games had other drawbacks than just a rise of rampant illicit drug use for performance enhancement. Athletes and researchers were concerned about the altitude of Mexico City, and it became apparent that change was going to be essential in allowing athletes to properly prepare for how the altitude change would affect their bodies.

When Mexico City bid for the Olympics, the issues regarding competing at altitude existed, but weren’t viewed as a major problem. However, as researchers began to look further into the impact of altitude on training and red blood cells, they discovered a big difference between competing at low and high altitudes.

Researchers held pre-Olympic research events every year for the four years leading up to the 1968 games in Mexico City, using around 200-500 athletes from more than 30 countries in their research.

Ernst Joel, one of the doctors that conducted detailed experiments during these events, recommended to the IOC that athletes begin training at high altitude up to three months before the games in order to acclimate the body fully to the rigors of competition at such a high altitude.

"The pros are there for a reason. People will tune in to watch athletes they know. The pro athletes are pre-sold to the public, which means increased viewership." - Journalist Ron Rappoport

Avery Brundage, the IOC president at the time, was faced with a new issue: the amount of time athletes trained for the Olympics. Four weeks of hard training and preparation before the Olympics was the amateur standard for years. Brundage and his predecessors believed an even playing field with amateur athletes meant a limit to the training allowed before competition.

Four weeks was a short enough period that it meant athletes were still considered amateurs by the IOC. It enabled them to work another job and meant no one country could use its resources to support athletes taking off work longer amounts of time.

For Brundage, his staunch belief in amateurism had to be preserved. He and the IOC allotted an extra two weeks of training, bumping the amount from four to six weeks training before the Olympics.

However, the Olympics becoming one of the premier sporting events in history had unintended consequences. Athletes began to be offered more and more money for their services. Adidas and Puma, for example, acted quickly to try and snag Olympic athletes to market their brands, and the marketability of these athletes ballooned as television became more prominent covering the Olympics.

The 1968 Summer Olympics was the threshold of all of these issues: Altitude and scientific research, doping and drug testing, and even the profitability and mass media consumption of premiere Olympic athletes.

How are they connected?

Through the ancient Olympic precedent of amateurism.

Post-1968

Rule 26 of the Olympic charter states an athlete “must observe and abide by’ IOC rules and the rules of ‘his or her international federation’ and must not have ‘received any financial rewards or material benefit in connection with his or her sports participation, except as permitted’ by the international federation.

Chris Mullin (L), Charles Barkley (M) and Magic Johnson (R) of Team USA, the Dream Team, on the victor’s podium after winning the gold medal in the men’s basketball competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. The change in the amateurism rule allowed professionals like NBA and NHL players to participate in the games. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

The IOC used Rule 26 as a way of incorporating anti-doping policies into the eligibility for competition component of its rules. Although there were rules in place regarding doping before 1968, it was the Mexico City Games that catapulted issues regarding the rules and regulations put in place by the IOC into prominence among those in the Olympic community.

In the years following the 1968 Mexico City Games, athletes had progressively been fighting against this seemingly outdated charter. Feelings that amateurism was essential in Olympic sport were starting to fade. The revenue generated by the Olympics was great, and sponsors wishing to give huge wealth to stars competing in the games grew tremendously, putting a wrench into the traditions of the Olympic movement.

“The pros are there for a reason,” said journalist Ron Rappoport, who has covered six Olympics. “People will tune in to watch athletes they know. The pro athletes are pre-sold to the public, which means increased viewership.”

Many countries, such as East Germany and the Soviet Union, were already were operating as de facto professionals anyway, forcing the IOC to make a decision regarding professionalism in the Olympics sooner than later.

By 1980, the move for professionalism was in full swing.

According to a New York Times article published by Dave Anderson in 1984, multiple hockey players were barred from Olympic competition due to their professional level of play, either in the NHL or in other leagues world-wide.

However, three athletes with similar backgrounds were allowed to participate. Two had signed NHL entry-level contracts but had not stepped onto the ice. Another had played in more than 300 career games in the World Hockey Association.

We indeed have to remove the contradictions and the hypocrisy that exist,” said then Secretary of the Treasury and President of the United States Olympic Committee Bill Simon. ”We ought to have an eligibility rule that all 151 nations in the Olympic movement can understand, a simple definition. And that definition should be that an amateur is a person who participates without pay. That’s a pretty simple step.”

In reality, only a few sports such as hockey, figure skating, boxing, basketball, soccer and cycling would be seriously affected by professionals joining the games.

By 1986, the IOC’s long fight over amateurism was waning. Rules were put in place that shifted control of determining who could compete in the Olympics from the IOC to the respective sports’ international federations.

”I don’t want to see the Olympics degenerate into another forum for professional sports,” said Robert Helmick, then the president of the United States Olympic Committee and International Swimming Federation (FINA), at the time the rules changes were being contemplated. ‘And I don’t like the present archaic rules. There’s a middle ground. We say each sport should look at itself independently, make its own eligibility rules and enforce them.”

It was initially thought the Olympic spirit would be lost once professionals were allowed to participate, and although many favored changing the rules, the change to the institution as a whole was significant.

This led to the influx of individual trust funds to help support amateur athlete competitors in non-traditional sports such as skiing. It opened the door for runners and others to accept prize money, sponsorships and endorsements to fund their training.

It also led to some impactful sports moments and teams, such as the fabled USA’s men’s basketball “Dream Team” in 1992.

The long history of amateurism as an embodiment of the Olympic spirit was an idea engraved in the roots of the modern Olympics.

By the 1968 Mexico City Olympics however, issues surrounding eligibility, anti-doping and altitude forced a complete revisiting of the ideals of amateurism, one of the more intriguing policies at the Olympics’ core and one that couldn’t survive the modern era games that Mexico City ushered in.

Ross Andrews is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University

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