Amateurs on Ski

By Arnold Lunn. Originally published in the <em>New Statesman</em>, 12 January 1962. Selected by <s

During the 1948 Winter Olympics I was appointed by the International Ski Federation to adjudicate on all questions of eligibility for the ski-ing events. It was common knowledge that many competitors would be ruled out as ineligible if any serious attempt was made to enforce the Olympic amateur rules, but it was no less certain that such an attempt would receive no support from the authorities. It would therefore be impossible to demonstrate that any particular skier was a professional. There was, for instance, a good-looking ski teacher, a beneficiary of the Olympic amnesty, which restored amateur status to ski teachers who had ceased to teach for money 18 months before the Games opened. He had spent the winter ski-ing with a lady who was known to have a weakness for good-looking skiers. I knew that it would be impossible for me to prove whether or not he had actually been paid as a ski teacher by this lady.

I wrote to the President of the Olympic Committee to inform him that I was prepared to cross-examine all doubtful cases, on condition that he would persuade some members of his committee to be present during these investigations. The officials would then discover that I was unable to prove anything which would entitle me to disqualify skiers who were none the less known to be ineligible. The President of the Olympic Committee left my letter unanswered, and my own Federation reminded me that I had not been appointed to act as an inquisitor but merely to deal with any protests which were brought before me. There were, of course, no protests.

The fact is that it is not in the interest, either of the International Olympic Committee or of most of the national ski federations, that the amateur rules should be strictly enforced. The prestige of the Olympic Games depends on the fact that the world's greatest athletes are competing; few indeed are the Olympic medallists who are truly amateurs under Olympic rules. These rules define an amateur as 'a man who participates and always has participated in sport solely for pleasure'. Of course, few pleasures equal the pleasure of making money. But consider the following clause (f) of the Olympic amateur rule: 'Those who have neglected their usual vocation or employment for competitive sport...(maximum two weeks training period).' If this rule were enforced only second-class athletes would be competing in the Olympics, which would then become a second-class event.

The communist countries have no interest whatever in amateurism; the amateur concept being essentially a product of a capitalistic society in which the sons of rich men employed professionals to enable them to beat other well-to-do athletes. Every communist country puts its best team into the field, for sport is an instrument of politics, and Olympic medals have immense propaganda value in the cold war. The Alpine countries have perhaps even greater inducements to enter their best skiers, for Olympic medals influence the tourist trade. There are still, it would seem, thousands of people who, from the fact that the natives of Austrian Alpine valleys are a second or two faster downhill than the natives of Swiss valleys, deduce that Austrians are better ski teachers than the Swiss. In the 1956 Olympics Toni Sailer, a native of Kitzbühl in Austria, won three gold medals. Since then Kitzbühl has added 3,000 beds and four ski-lifts to its facilities. According to Sports Illustrated there are about 200 Austrian ski teachers in America as against four French teachers. In the last two seasons the French have displaced the Austrians as the leading ski-racers, and victories by Périllatis had already attracted 100,000 new visitors to French Alpine centres last season. Périllatis' home town, La Clusaz, is turning away hundreds of visitors. An Austrian ski teacher is quoted by Mr John Meklin as saying: 'We Austrians have learned that technique=winners=tourists. People like to ski where the champions ski. If the French keep this up, something drastic will have to be done.'

If your ambition is to win the Olympic mile you can work at your normal job during the day and train on a flood-lit track after office hours. Even so, you will be at great disadvantage compared to the hand-picked athlete, every hour of whose day is planned to ensure maximum fitness during the Olympic Games. The skier has no hope of Olympic medals unless he skis for months on end. The Alpine racers usually begin their training on the glaciers in August, and many of them train continuously until the first races at the end of December and then race until April. Clearly they must be subsidized. Their expenses, generously interpreted, are paid by their associations. The manufacturers of ski often supply them with a large number of ski, of which they keep a few for their own use, and sell the rest. Olympic medallists are as eager to display their ski when being photographed as Wimbledon winners are to get their rackets in the picture. Crack racers are induced to compete by offers of actual (if surreptitious) cash payments, and schemes are afoot in at least one country to guarantee former racers well-paid positions. Even so many parents discourage young racers from joining the racing circus and sacrificing three or four years of their life when they should be learning a trade. It is only the exceptional star, like Sailer, who makes a really good thing out of racing.

Ski-ing is often referred to as a 'winter sport'. It is a snow sport which can be indulged throughout the year. The invention of an artificial snow substitute enables ski jumpers to jump throughout the summer and this explains the success of the East German athlete Recknagel. A Russian who won the jumping at Holmenkollen in 1958 said to a Norwegian: 'How can you expect to win if you only jump in the winter?' He had jumped daily throughout the year. In communist countries, successful athletes are civil servants, and paid accordingly.

The prohibition of professionalism is proving as ineffective as the prohibition of alcohol proved in America and, like that earlier form of prohibition, it is leading to a cynical contempt for law in general. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is well aware of the facts but disclaim responsibility. 'The national Olympic committees,' Herr Otto Mayer, Chancellor of the Olympic Committee, wrote to me 'are sending pseudo-amateurs to the Games....But for national prestige and for a gold medal they prefer to swindle.'

The Olympic Committee insists that it is not in a position to enforce its own rules, but when the Chancellor of that committee baldly states that many national associations 'swindle', and when the Committee admits that it is powerless to prevent swindling, surely the time has come to change a system which all but compels young athletes to be dishonest, and to drop the amateur facade. Three signatures are necessary for every Olympic entry and when a shamateur is entered, 'three people have lied' - to quote the President of the IOC. An Olympic amateur might indeed be defined as a man who is brave enough to lie for his country.

The real distinction today is between career athletes who, whether technically amateur or not, intend to make a career out of athletics and holiday-athletes who practise their favourite sport during their holidays. This distinction is recognized in ski-ing by the races modelled on the Duke of Kent Cup, called after the first patron of the Kandahar Ski Club. The social value of a sport depends on the proportion who take part in contrast to those who merely watch. The Olympic medals are increasingly becoming the monopoly of career athletes, and the insistence of the Olympic Committee on maintaining the amateur facade is a great disservice to genuine amateurism, for the countries whose prestige depends on Olympic victories will continue to evade the rules and to enter their best athletes, irrespective of whether they are or are not qualified. If, on the other hand, they were free to enter professionals, they could organise genuine amateur competitions and for those competitions enforce exacting amateur qualifications.