Can Professional Athletes Compete in the Olympics?


Herbert Kratky /

The Olympics, which occurs every four years, is one of the world’s greatest sporting events. Inspired by the ancient Olympics in Greece, the modern games began in 1896 and were long known as a bastion for amateurism with professionals being unable to compete in the games.

However, during the latter half of the 20th century, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has had to adapt to a number of political and economic advancements and one of these was the growing issue of corporate endorsements and sponsorship which blurred the lines of amateurism and professionalism resulting in the rules being steadily relaxed for almost all sports in the Olympic movement, allowing professionals to compete in all sports, except boxing and wrestling.

Why Were Only Amateur Sportsmen and Women Allowed To Compete In The Olympic Games?

Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the International Olympic Committee and was the driving force behind the first of the modern Olympic Games. Pierre de Coubertin was greatly influenced by the aristocratic ethos behind the English public school system that saw sport as a fundamental part of an all-round education, summed up by the Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano (healthy body, healthy mind).

As part of this philosophy, young gentlemen were not expected to be specialists in one activity but to be an all-rounder. Fairness was also an overriding principle with training almost considered to be cheating. Those who played or practiced a sport professionally were considered to have an unfair advantage over their amateur counterparts.

Professional Athlete Controversies

The fact that professional sports people were long excluded from the Olympic Games has resulted in a number of controversies. In 1912, Jim Thorpe who won gold medals in both the pentathlon and decathlon was stripped of his medals after it was discovered he was a professional sportsman. However, he wasn’t a professional pentathlete or decathlete, it was the fact he had been paid for playing baseball in a semi-professional capacity. The IOC restored his medals posthumously in 1983 on compassionate grounds.

Other controversies include the 1936 Winter Olympics boycott by Austrian and Swiss skiers. This was in reaction to some of them being banned from competing for teaching the art of skiing and they were, therefore, considered “professional”, as they had earned money from their sport.

The Transition from Amateurism to Professionalism

As the 20th century moved on, so did the perception of sport. The idea of the gentleman amateur gradually became out-dated and the line between amateur and professional became blurred. One of the main reasons for this lay not in the capitalist west but in the communist Eastern Bloc countries, such as Russia and East Germany. They pioneered the idea of the state sponsored ‘full time amateur athlete’, which in turn, put those athletes who were forced to be self financing at a severe disadvantage. The IOC also gradually came to the realisation that allowing sponsorship, advertising, and other commercial interests could turn the Olympic Games into a goldmine that could attract the very best international professional athletes.

The most iconic moment that defines the leap from amateurism to professionalism in the Olympic Games was the United States Basketball team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. The team was made up of some of the most famous ever players to play in the NBA including Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Patrick Ewing and was described as the ‘Dream Team’, as well as the greatest sports team ever to be assembled. Unsurprisingly, the team easily progressed through the Olympic competition and won the gold medal, beating Croatia 117-85 in the final.

The Olympics Today

Today, professional athletes are allowed to compete in the Olympic Games alongside their amateur counterparts. However, two sports continued to resist the onset of professionalism in the Olympics. These are wrestling and boxing. However, the AIBA (Amateur International Boxing Association) has signalled that it will allow professionals to compete in the Olympics, beginning in 2016. Wrestling in its Olympic form remains an amateur sport but this could well change by the time it next makes an appearance in the 2020 games.