When the International Olympic Committee was formed in 1894 by Pierre de Coubertin, he intended the athletes competing in the Olympics to only be amateur athletes.

The definition of an amateur athlete is someone who doesn't receive compensation:

Amateur sports are sports in which participants engage largely or entirely without remuneration. The distinction is made between amateur sporting participants and professional sporting participants, who are financially remunerated for the time they spend playing or training.

Why are professional athletes now allowed to compete in the Olympic games?


2 Answers 2


The IOC officially began allowing professional athletes to compete in the Olypmic Games in 1988, basically leaving it up to the individual sporting federations to decide if they would permit it. The only sports which continue to claim they are "amateur only" are boxing and wrestling, but even that's a bit of a misnomer: certain national boxing or wrestling Olympics committees pay out cash rewards, but since the fighters are not paid to fight, they are not considered professional.

This topic is actually the subject of an article by Simon Eassem, published for the Second International Symposium for Olympic Research. The entire publication is called Critical reflections on Olympic ideology though it seems to be pretty hard to find. But the basic factors behind the IOC's decision were:

  • In many sports, all of the truly dominant athletes are professionals; amateur athletes, especially in team sports, are "going pro" much younger, sometimes right out of high school. This means that the idea of the best athletes in the world competing in the Olympics was simply not true, since the best in the world were excluded.
  • A number of high profile "scandals" occurred due to the strict application of the definition of a professional. One notable example was Jim Thorpe, who won multiple medals in 1912. He had previously played semi-pro baseball, so even though his medals were not in baseball (he was a track & field athlete), his medals were stripped. In addition, many athletes were excluded from competing because they earned money as trainers or tutors, and not as competitors.
  • The whole idea of pure-amateur competition was rooted heavily in the aristocratic English public school. The original intent was that amateur athletes not only didn't play professionally, they didn't train professionally -- any sort of training was considered cheating. Clearly, by the 1970s, that idea was long since abandoned, and was considered an artifact of the English "class system".
  • Most importantly, IMO, was the fact that so many countries just flat out cheated. Eastern-bloc countries were notorious for skirting the edge of the rules by having state-sponsored "full time amateurs". Their Olympic athletes were given everything they needed to live and train, but were not technically paid to do it, and all the money came from the government. This put the Soviet countries at a distinct advantage over the privately-funded Western athletes for a long, long time.

Ultimately, the IOC just decided that excluding pro athletes made the games less interesting, less competitive, and less fair. It also helped that the Olympics were big business by that point, with television rights fees, sponsorship money and similar sources of income. Having huge, marquee-level celebrity athletes brought in lots more money.

  • Also worth considering that this controversy already existed in sport before Coubertin. For example WG Grace technically was an amateur cricket player but in fact was paid. Also that football (soccer) has tried a series of real messes of rules which try to increase the amateur-ness of the players without actually coming out and saying that (because then they'd get fourth-rate squads). For example in 1984 European and South American (i.e, strong) countries were limited in what professional players they could use, and others weren't. Commented Aug 8, 2016 at 20:06
  • Interesting - people often enquire on Stack Exchange about whether I'm named after or any relation to Jim Thorpe (no, and nope - I'd never even heard of him before said comments) - now I find out he's scandalous! Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 14:16
  • 5
    In fairness to Mr. Thorpe, the IOC eventually decided they had overreacted and gave his medals back; unfortunately he had died 30 years earlier.
    – KutuluMike
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 14:18
  • 3
    That explains the 1992 dream team then, doesn't it.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Aug 9, 2016 at 21:37
  • 1
    Your last point, BTW, was being copied by Western teams too; part of the USOC's job as of the late 70s if not earlier was to appropriate Federal monies to training and housing the US Olympic teams as they prepared for the Games. Otherwise it would have been even harder to attract the best amateur athletes to compete, for team sports especially where they all have to be in the same place at the same time.
    – KeithS
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 15:29

Several reasons:

  • The more compensation amateurs were allowed to receive, the more the definition between "amateurs" and "professionals" became indistinguishable (if it wasn't already).
  • Increased viewership.
  • $$$

Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894, had intended that Olympic competition should be among amateurs rather than professionals.

In the dictionary, "amateur" means:

a person who engages in a study, sport, or other activity for pleasure rather than for financial benefit or professional reasons.

However, in 1971, the IOC approved compensation for amateur athletes(1).

Eastern nations were sponsored to train and compete on a full-time basis by their governments. As a result, US athletes found it difficult to compete with athletes from eastern nations, resulting in the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act in 1978 allowing US athletes to receive compensation.

Moreover, professionals had better brand-recognition than amateurs, as the following quote notes(2):

"The pros are there for a reason," the esteemed sports journalist Ron Rapoport, who has covered six Olympics ... "People will tune in to watch athletes they know. The pro athletes are pre-sold to the public, which means increased viewership."

After these developments, professionals became eligible for the Olympics(3):

After the 1988 Games, the IOC voted to declare all professionals eligible for the Olympics, subject to the approval of the international federations in charge of each sport.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.