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Amateurism is the philosophy that elevates things done without self-interest above things done for pay, especially with regard to sports which require participants to be amateurs. A zealously guarded ideal in the 19th century, it faced steady decline throughout the 20th century and is now held to by few organisations, even if they maintain the word "Amateur" in their titles.

The term shamateurism refers to the issues which sometimes arose at the elite level of such sports. In some cases it became possible for successful competitors to find people or organisations willing to give them financial rewards for their participation or achievements, making a "sham" of their amateur status.


In the United Kingdom sport had always been the preserve of the rich who were the only people who had free time in which to pursue sport, the working classes worked six days a week and sport was forbidden on the sabbath. The traditional mass sports that did exist were mostly played on public holidays e.g. Shrove Tuesday when traditional 'mob football' was popular. When the 'Factories Act' gave working men half a day off the opportunity to take part in sport was suddenly available. Unlike the rich where payment had never been an issue working class sportsmen found it hard to play top level sport due the need to turn up to work. Hence there were competing interests between those who wished sport to be open to all and those who feared that professionalism would destroy the 'Corinthian spirit'.

Proponents of the amateur ideal deplored the influence of money and the effect it has on sports. It was claimed that it is in the interest of the professional to receive the highest amount of pay possible per unit of performance, not to perform to the highest standard possible where this does not bring additional benefit.

Strict prohibition of professionals was held to inhibit the stated goals of celebrating the highest standards of performance, and this argument has generally defeated amateurism around the world in many sports.

The present day

By the early 21st Century the Olympics and all the major team sports accepted professional competitors. However there are still some sports which maintain a distinction between amateur and professional status, with separate competitions for the latter, most prominently golf. Problems can arise in this situation, for example when sponsors offer to help with an amateur's playing expenses in the hope of striking lucrative endorsement deals with them if they turn professional at a later date, but this is perhaps better seen as corruption or simply cheating than as true "shamateurism".

Where professionals are permitted, it is hard for amateurs to compete against them. Whether this is a triumph of the free market or an example of corruption depends on the viewer's perspective. To some an amateur means an incompetent and to others an idealist. To say that the athlete should not be paid can prevent performances only possible for an athlete who is free to pursue the sport fulltime without other sources of income; to make payment for performance the driving engine of the sport can invite cynicism and inflated wages. A truly idealist maximisation of athletic excellence without mercenary motive seems beyond human capacity.

The Olympics

See Olympic Games: Amateurism and professionalism

Until the late 20th century the Olympics nominally only accepted amateur athletes. However, successful Olympians from Western countries often had endorsement contracts from sponsors. Complex rules involving the payment of the athlete's earnings into trust funds rather than directly to the athletes themselves, were developed in an attempt to work around this issue, but the intellectual evasion involved was considered embarrassing to the Olympic movement and the key Olympic sports by some. In the same era, the nations of the Communist bloc entered teams of Olympians who were all nominally students or working in a profession, but many of whom were in reality paid by the state to train on a full time basis.

Jim Thorpe was stripped of track and field medals for having taken expense money for playing baseball in 1912. After the 1972 retirement of IOC President Avery Brundage, the Olympic amateurism rules were steadily relaxed and in many areas amount only to technicalities and lip service. In the United States, the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 prohibits national governing bodies from having more stringent standards of amateur status than required by international governing bodies of respective sports.

In 1982 Adidas was paying British Olympic athletes to wear their gear. The main person involved in the scandal was Horst Dassler.

Olympic amateurism regulations were eventually abandoned in the 1990s.


The team sport which has had the greatest problems with shamateurism is probably rugby union. At one time rugby had been popular with both the middle and working classes in England yet working class players found it hard to play away games or to cope with injuries. 'Boot money' had long been paid to certain players to help them cope with expenses. The struggle between clubs that supported 'broken time payments' and those that supported a stricter interpretation of amateurism came to a head in 1895 when clubs from the North of England broke away to form the Northern Rugby Union (later known as the Rugby Football League), whose rules eventually diverged from the RFU's, forming the sport now known as rugby league. Rugby league stayed an amateur sport for 3 years following the great schism with the exception of allowing payment for missing work through playing commitments or injury, after this they allowed players to be paid for playing as long as they had a regular job. Full-time professionalism did not come into rugby league until much later and amateurism continued in the form of the British Amateur Rugby League Association.

Rugby union was to officially remain an amateur sport for the next 100 years. This was occasionally strictly enforced as in the famous case of Jock Wemyss who in 1920 was told that he could not be given a Scotland shirt for his second cap since they had given him one six years earlier. In 1931 France was even expelled from the Five Nations Championship following allegations that their domestic league was in fact professional, but without any noticeable changes they were allowed to rejoin just before World War II.

The union authorities placed severe sanctions on associations with rugby league. Even playing an amateur game was sufficient to receive a ban from the sport. In one incident in the early 1900s a union team from Huddersfield played a charity match against a local league side; all the players were subsequently banned for being "professionalised". Union players who actually went to play professional league were routinely banned for life from even attending rugby union matches as supporters. In 1959 Michael Jopling, the Conservative candidate for election in Wakefield was invited to kick off one half of a Wakefield Trinity home match. He was later informed by his local rugby union club that he had "professionalised" himself and that he was no longer welcome at the club [1].

Payment for expenses was often permitted however. The "amateur" 1908 Australian rugby union tourists to Britain received payment of 21 shillings a week, more than twice the payment for players on the following season's "professional" Great Britain rugby league tour of Australasia.Note 1

By the 1980s and 1990s there were mounting allegations that the top players were in fact making a living from the game. The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport of the British House of Commons observed [2]:

"The absorption of professionalism into Rugby Union in the Northern Hemisphere was dictated by the reality of shamateurism at the highest levels of the game, particularly in the Southern Hemisphere, where the pretence of amateur status had become severely undermined and unsustainable."
"Although Rugby Union had been ostensibly amateur since its birth, the regulations prohibiting professionalism were not, in practice, enforced. Governing bodies "turned a blind eye" to breaches of the regulations."

With the advent of the World Cup and the Tri Nations, rugby union had become a big TV ratings draw and there were rumours of a Rupert Murdoch-financed breakaway professional league much as had already happened in Australian rugby league. Finally in 1995 the International Rugby Board decided to open the sport to professionals following the World Cup.


English cricket maintained a division between amateur and professional cricketers until 1963, but ways were sometimes found to give the "amateurs" financial compensation, especially after 1945. Cricket even went so far as to have annual "Gentlemen versus Players" games between amateurs and professionals and there were requirements for "players" to refer to "gentlemen" as Mister or Sir whereas "gentlemen" would refer to "players" by their surnames.

Football (soccer)

Boot money has been a phenomenon in amateur sport for centuries. The term "boot money" became popularized in the 1880s when it was not unusual for players to find half a crown (12-and-a-half pence) in their boots after a game.

The Football Association prohibited paying players until 1885, and this is referred to as the "legalization" of professionalism because it was an amendment of the "Laws of the Game". However, a maximum salary cap of twelve pounds a week for a player with outside employment and fifteen pounds a week for a player with no outside employment lingered until the 1960s even as transfer fees reached over a hundred thousand pounds; again, "boot money" was seen as a way of topping up pay. Today the most prominent English football clubs that are not professional are semi-professional (paying part-time players more than the old maximum for top professionals) and the most prominent true amateur club is probably Corinthian-Casuals F.C. (descended from the club that was once Britain's finest in the 19th century but today four divisions below the Football League). Amateur football is now found mainly in small village and Sunday clubs and the Amateur Football Alliance.

Other sports

Major tennis championships prohibited professionals until 1968 but the subsequent admission of professionals virtually eliminated amateurs from public visibility. Golf still has amateur championships but their champions are far more obscure than professional champions and very few of those who compete in open events are not professionals. Paying players was considered disreputable in baseball until 1869.


  1. Gate, Robert (1989). Illustrated History of Rugby League, p48. Arthur Barker. ISBN 0-21-316970-3

See also