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The Olympic Games claimed to support a universal identity through inclusive international competition. In principle these claims were directed towards making the working class part of the Olympic movement. This did not always work out in practice. During more than half of its history, the Olympics eligibility for participation was restricted to amateurs. The meaning of the Olympic amateur restriction is debated. Some hold the position that it was rooted in a form of class bias, because only the aristocracy was able to afford the expense of pursuing sporting activities in a non-profit way.

Sports were primarily an aspect of the education of the higher classes. It was part of the British private boarding school model that was aimed at the elite. The working classes were growing in numbers and gained more political power through widening suffrage and the growth in the number of labour unions. At the same time there was growing unrest and dissatisfaction among workers over harsh labour conditions in the rapidly industrialising society.

De Coubertin did see a responsibility for the higher classes and aristocracy to support the lower classes in their sporting endeavours. In his view, sports were a way to enhance national solidarity among the classes, without diminishing the position of the upper classes.

A national or an international working class

De Coubertin differentiated between two forms of internationalism. Firstly, there was the internationalism as in the Olympic Games (based on national solidarity beyond internal barriers but remaining within the boundaries of the state). Secondly, there was the socialist internationalism based on transnational solidarity. De Coubertin rejected the latter because of its levelling effects on nations. According to Coubertin, the nation was a fundamental concept for an international community to take hold.

For this reason, the Socialist and Communist movements throughout Europe organised their own Olympic Games: the Workers Olympiad and the Communist Spartakiad. Socialist and Communist workers’ sporting organisations developed in the 19th and early 20th century, in opposition to the ‘bourgeois’ sporting organisations that they considered exclusive, chauvinistic and militaristic.

Thus, there were several competing events for the working classes until the ‘30s from the competing understanding of internationalism. The ‘Lausanne Socialist International’ (LSI) invited ‘all the proletarians of the world’ to participate in the Workers Olympiad in Frankfurt. The GANEFO (Games of the New and Emerging Forces Organization) in Indonesia 1963 was a breakaway movement of socialist countries that rejected the Olympics because they believed that it was dominated by imperialist countries (Cashman and Hughes, 1999: 15).

Sponsorship and the end of amateur restriction

IOC president Avery Brundage saw the amateur restriction as the crux of his concept of Olympism – all other Olympic goals and values were dependent on it. He strongly opposed commercial developments in the Olympic movement. In his “Olympic Story” Brundage explains: “Amateur sport is the only kind of sport there is, because if it isn’t amateur, it isn’t sport – it is business”. (Schantz 2008: 9).

Historically, because of the amateur-restriction and lack of income compensation, athletes often looked to other sources of income. The Hollywood film industry engaged with the new celebrity status of American Olympic swimmers Johnny Weissmuller and Clarence (Buster) Crabbe, and decathlon athlete Glen Morris, all of whom played the role of ‘Tarzan’ in Hollywood productions. Swimmer Eleanor Holm was under contract with Warner Brothers to perform in professional aquatic shows.

Olympians who became rich through their athletic endeavours are the exception rather than the rule. Even now, an Olympic career is not a source of income for the largest group of Olympic athletes, because the financial awards and sponsor contracts go only to a narrow group of the very best athletes. This makes participation easier for athletes that do not generate their income directly through their sport.

The Cold War and particularly the state-sponsored ‘full-time amateur athletes’ of the East-Bloc countries changed the understanding of the amateur athlete and led to modification of the amateur restriction until it was gradually lifted in the 1970s and 1980s. After 1988, the IOC voted to declare all professionals eligible for the Olympics for each sport. The lifting of the amateur restriction led to the highly professionalised and celebrity status of today’s athletes. Individual sponsorship and endorsement deals became important ways for athletes to generate income (though scarcely available). Today, athletes argue that rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, a dated restriction on sponsorship deals during the games, too must be lifted: the last stronghold of class-biased Olympic regulation.

Being rich still an advantage

The best single predictor for Olympic success is gross domestic product (GDP) or the per capita income of a country. The richer countries achieve higher medal counts because GDP is an indication of available resources to train athletes, build training facilities, develop training methods and technology, et cetera. The GDP number always hides an aspect of the size of the population: the size of an economy is related to the amount of people that partake in it. But population count alone is not a reliable predictor of national success.

The unequal distribution of global wealth is a continuing result of neo-colonial history and on-going oppressive relations. Arguably, the Olympics Games are still to some extent a game for the rich.


Butler, B.S. (1992), ‘Muscular Marxism and the Chicago Counter-Olympics of 1932’, International Journal of the History of Sport, 9:3, pp. 397-410.

Gounot, André (1998), ‘Between Revolutionalry demands and diplomatic necessity: The uneasy relationship between Soviet sport and worker and bourgeois sport in Europe from 1920 to 1937’, in: P. Arnoud en J. Riordan, Sport and Internatinoal Politics. The Impact of facism and communism on sport, London: Routledge.

Hunt, Thomas M. (2007) ‘Countering the Soviet Threat in the Olympic medals race: The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 and American athletics policy reform’, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, 24:6, 796-818.

Riordan, J. (1984), ‘The Workers’ Olympics’, in Tomlinson and Whannel, Five Ring Circus: Money, Power and the Politics in the Olympic Games, London: Pluto.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Het Nieuwe Instituut
Yuri Veerman
Random Studio & Yuri Veerman
Random Studio
Random Studio
Mikhail S. Spektor & Dr. Gilles Dutilh (University of Basel)
Marc van der Valk
Jane Szita
International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Olympic Television Archive Bureau (OTAB) UCLA Film & Television Archive

This project is part of the programme track Annual themes and the folder Olympic Games.