In my previous post I had commented about The Perfect Mile by Neal Bascomb and the pleasure it gave me. One reason : It took me back to an era when athletes were ‘gentleman athletes ‘, amateurs competing solely for honor and glory.The rules were very strict. For instance, Bannister had to content himself with a miniature trophy for clocking the first sub- four minute mile ; the value of the full size trophy would have far exceeded the $ 25 limit that was allowed.
There was a purity about sport that went out the window as soon as it became professional.
As sports became more popular and promoters started making money, they started offering appearance money to athletes, in the guise of expenses. With athletes having to travel to meets all over the country, it was impossible for them to compete and still retain their amateur status unless they were independently wealthy. American athletes were handicapped by the system since they had to vie with Eastern bloc athletes who were subsidized by the state. At one time, it appeared as if the entire Russian Olympic team consisted of armymen and students, some of them 30 years old. The term ‘shamateur’ , coined to describe such athletes , came into being at around that time.
Naturally, it became impossible to monitor athletes and ensure that they were true amateurs and the whole system came tumbling down. Events were thrown open to both amateurs and pros , leading to the present day system. Nowadays, the struggle has shifted to the college ranks as the NCAA and others try make sure that college athletes are indeed amateurs and that they are not receiving gifts and stipends from alumni boosters or sports agents.
Nowadays, in the era of professional sports, athletes look upon sports as a career. Of the thousands who compete only a few make it to the pros ; for those who don’t, there is usually no Plan B. They have given their all the effort and are not equipped to hold down a real world job. Most do not graduate college ; some are functionally illiterate.
What a contrast with the ‘gentleman athlete’ of yesteryear for whom sports was only a part of life and who had taken the effort to develop his other talents. The post- athletic careers of Roger Bannister and his fellow milers are typically admirable. Bannister, who was qualifying as a medical doctor even as he mounted his assault on the 4- minute mile, worked for 40 years as a neuro- physician and worked tirelessly to promote sports in Britain. John Landy was a teacher and researcher and was active ii the sports scene in Australia . He later served one term as the Governor of Victoria State. Wes Santee served with distinction in the Marines and retired to run a very successful insurance business. Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, who set the pace for Bannister in his historic mile, were also hugely successful in their careers. What a contrast with the majority of today’s pro athletes, one trick ponies who do little of note after their athletic careers are done.
Amateurism in sports was doomed to give way to professionalism . It was an untenable system. Yet, when I think back to those earlier days I can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia for a time when sports heroes were more deserving of our admiration….