Amateur Sport

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Amateur Sport


The Amateur Ideal. Many of the sports played in late-nineteenth-century America were considered amateur, meaning that the contestants did not earn a living from their athletic pursuits. Individuals who earned a living from athletic competition, either in the form of a salary or prize money, were professionals, and they competed apart from the amateurs. Amateurism originated in England, where it operated to prevent the working classes from competing against the landed aristocratic elite. In England amateurism, practiced in its purest sense, meant that an individual who earned a living from competition was considered a professional and, therefore, ineligible for participation in amateur sport. English amateurism also carried a code of sportsmanship, in which winning was secondary to gentlemanly competition. America inherited the concept, if not the practice, of amateurism from England. In America Amateurism operated to insulate sportsmen of wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots from not only the working class but from racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well. Moreover, the amateur ideal evolved in America to embrace a win at all costs ethic, which encouraged the organizers and promoters of amateur sports to seek surreptitious ways to materially compensate winning athletic performances and subsidize champion athletes.

Rise of the Athletic Club. The locus of amateur sport in late-nineteenth-century America was the urban athletic club. The first and most influential of these organizations, the New York Athletic Club (NYAC), was established in 1868 by a small group of socially prominent sportsmen who wanted to engage in athletic, specifically track and field, competition, with individuals of similar social standing and congenial interests. The London Athletic Club, which held the first English amateur track and field championships in 1866, served as the model for the NYAC. Soon other athletic clubs organized throughout metropolitan New York, including the Staten Island, American, Manhattan, Pastime, University, and Crescent clubs, each fashioned after the NYAC. By 1879 Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, and Saint Louis had established similar athletic clubs. Throughout the 1870s the NYAC became the leading promoter of amateur sport in America, sponsoring nationwide championships in track and field in 1876, swimming in 1877, boxing in 1878, and wrestling in 1879. To prevent professionals of any sort from participating in these national championships, the NYAC defined an amateur as any person who has never competed in an open competition for public or admission money, or with professionals for a prize, nor has at any period in his life taught or assisted in the pursuit of athletic exercises as a means of livelihood. In 1879 when the newly formed National Association of Amateur Athletes of America (N4A) assumed control of track and field, it adopted the same definition of amateurism.

Amateurism Transformed. While upholding the amateur ideal, athletic clubs during the 1880s became more than centers simply for urban amateur sport; they became broader and more socially inclusive organizations. During these decades athletic clubs began to seek and select members with, in addition to athletic skill, credentials such as membership in other prestigious social or athletic clubs, a college degree, and wealth from either an inheritance or a lucrative profession. The NYAC, which boasted a membership of fifteen hundred in 1885, became such a club, as it carefully screened its applicants and charged a $100 initiation fee and $50 annual dues. Membership in the NYAC became an important link in a web of associations that constituted an exclusive status community. Athletic clubs such as the NYAC began as player-centered organizations, but became less so as they sought members who were not necessarily athletes, but representatives of the social elite. As in the case of the NYAC, many of the athletes who originally established the club resigned as their power was usurped by a growing nonathletic membership. The athletes became merely representatives of the club, there to bring home trophies and entertain the new social elite membership. To the social elite, sports became a means to enhance the prestige of the club, not something to be pursued for its own sake. The effortprestige to enhance the prestige of the athletic club eroded its amateurism, as the clubs charged admission fees to events and rewarded athletes materially for championship performances.

The Amateur Athletic Union. Throughout the 1880s rivalries between the clubs for athletic superiority resulted in the rise of professionalism within amateur athletics, prestige of the most blatant violations of amateurism involved Lon Myers, a champion runner from the Manhattan Athletic Club (MAC). Myers received payment for serving as the clubs secretary and directing the construction of a new clubhouse. The MAC also permitted Myers to compete against a British professional runner and keep his winnings. Upon his triumphant return from England, the MAC held a benefit banquet for him, which garnered Myers $4,000. These events led the NYAC and several other clubs to leave the National Association of Amateur Athletes of America in 1886, and two years later they established the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) to govern primarily track and field. Despite the formation of the AAU, the problems with professionalism did not cease, as clubs continued to steal each others top athletes, luring them away with promises of better training facilities and lavish expense accounts. Abuses abounded, since many involved smaller clubs that had no recourse against the larger organizations, such as the NYAC, that dominated the decision-making levels of the AAU. During the 1890s the AAU gained broader control over amateur sports by becoming involved with college athletic competitions. By the turn of the century the AAU, the colleges, and the American Olympic Committee fought for influence over amateur sports, as each entity had a stake in its athletes and activities.


One of the oldest footraces in North America is the Boston Marathon. The race was inspired by the 1896 Olympic marathon, conceived by Michel Breal, a French classicist and historian, who insisted that the athletic program of the first modern Olympic Games must include an endurance footrace. He suggested a forty-kilometer race to celebrate the feat of Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who ran that distance from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek triumph over Persia in 490 B.C. Spiridon Louis, a Greek shepherd, won the 1896 Olympic marathon in less than three hours. After the Olympic Games the Boston Athletic Association decided to hold a similar race to commemorate the famous ride of Paul Revere on the eve of the American Revolution. The first race was held on 19 April 1897, in conjunction with the BAA handicap track meet. The race followed a 24.7-mile course from Ashland to Boston. Fifteen runners competed in the inaugural event, with John J. McDermott, a Canadian, winning in 2:55:10. The year before, McDermott had won the New York Marathon, and while that race was an one-time affair, the Boston Marathon became an annual Patriots Day sporting event. John C. Lorden, of Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first local runner to win the Boston Marathon in 1903.

Sources: Stephen Hardy, How Boston Played: Sport, Recreation, and Community, 1865-1915 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1982).

David E. Martin and Roger W. H. Gynn, The Marathon Footrace: Performers and Performances (Springfield, 111,: C. C. Thomas, 1979).

Rise of Track and Field. The chief amateur sport in late-nineteenth-century America was track and field, and under the control of the AAU from the late 1880s onward, the sport flourished. The NYAC, as well as other clubs throughout the nation, produced the nations top track and field performers, the best of whom were brought together for the AAU national championships. The AAU maintained a strict amateur code, severely penalizing violators. Although the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America (IC4A) governed intercollegiate track and field, the AAU promoted it as well, permitting college performers to compete in club meets, and inviting the best to compete in the national championships. Many of the best track and field athletes of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, however, came from ethnic clubs, such as the Irish-American Athletic Club in New York, which regularly battled with the NYAC for track and field supremacy. In 1895 American performers defeated an international delegation of athletes in a track and field meet between the NYAC and the London Athletic Club. With the revival of the

Olympic Games in 1896, track and field became the showcase sport, with Americans dominating nearly every event. James B. Connolly, who won the first eventthe hop, step, and jumpwas the first Olympic champion to be crowned in fifteen centuries.


Benjamin G. Rader, American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Spectators (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983);

Steven A. Riess, City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989);

Richard Wettan and Joe W. Willis, The Effect of New York Athletic Clubs on American Amateur Athletic Governance, 1870-1915, Research Quarterly, 47 (October 1976): 499-505.