By the 1880's there were two very clear camps in the Canadian sports world: the traditional rural sports ethic of matched races, gambling and tavern sports, and the amateur ethic of sportsmanship, civil competition and eradication of anything to do with money. You could be a part-time, come-as-you-are amateur dabbling in sport or a down-and-dirty pro, out to make as much money as you could. There was no middle ground.
Like so many political movements today, the driving force behind this dichotomy was not clearly evident.
The "elites" of society, the wealthy industrialists, professionals, landowners and politicians, using the support of the churches and many fraternal organizations like the YMCA, pushed the amateur ethic on Canadian society. A society that, for the most part, liked the excitement of a big money match and the gambling opportunity it created.
They really did impose it too. In creating Amateur Athletic Associations the elites took control of the playing fields and facilities, set and standardized the rules of sports, organized the best competitions and leagues and started keeping records for the first time, but only for their competitions, drawing the best athletes to them. To partake in their sports world an athlete had to be vetted by a local AAA to get an amateur card. Without that card an athlete was banned for life.
Anyone playing for money was left out - they couldn't use the public sports fields, couldn't set records, couldn't enter the well organized track meets.
What interests me is why all this came about. Was playing sport for money really that evil? So evil the elites went to all that political trouble to wrest control of sport from the mobs of working men?
The elites said it was all about "civilizing society", raising sport to noble values of fair play, civility and chivalry.
But like many political movements, there was more to it, and it was self-serving.
The elites were the wealthy men who had vast economic interests. They ran factories, they owned huge retail interests, they owned huge estates that hired many workers, they had investments in companies that drove the stock market. Their vested interest was to keep the economy rolling so their business interests would keep growing.
What they saw in the traditional sports world of matched racing and tavern sports were two things: gambling and drunkenness. The sports spectacles drew thousands of spectators, all out for some excitement and recreation. Naturally, that included tipping a few steins of beer, just as it does today. Sounds like fun for the working man.
But the elites just saw their workforce, the men who had to show up the next day to run their factories, besotting themselves. How many absentees would there be at work the next day?
They also saw poverty, men who gambled and drank the food money away. Impoverished households bred social problems, disinterested workers and unreliable workers.
In short, the elites saw the gambling sports spectacles as bad for business, well, big business anyway. They didn't care how well the taverns did, only how well their factories did.
So, in the 1870's they saw a problem, and by the 1880's they devised a solution: Get rid of the sports spectacles so there would be less drunkenness and poverty. Their organization of Amateur Associations and their political man-handling of the traditional sports culture worked, but it took 30 years to fully succeed. By 1910 the traditional sports were in serious decline, Walter Knox was the last of the great professional all-around champions in 1914. After WWI the Amateur Associations were in complete control of what became known as the amateur sports.
You can see this same political process at work today. Scientists are almost unanimous that there is global warming and it has man-made origins. However, there is a serious and vocal opposition to that belief, the so-called "climate deniers". If you look carefully (and you don't have to look very hard), you can see the advertising campaigns that have been mounted by the biggest corporations in the history of the world, the fossil fuel giants, in support of the deniers. What we don't see very easily is the back-room campaign they have also mounted to influence politicians and manipulate public discourse to their own ends.
The elites in 1880 saw a problem for their interests and mounted a difficult and belligerent campaign to defend their interests. The "elites" do the same things today.
The amateur campaign to control sport lasted 100 years (see previous post "the End of Amateurism in Canada"). After 1980 the elites changed their minds. The spectacles like the Olympics didn't seem to be affecting their workforces any more. They saw their interests were better served by jumping on the money-making bandwagon that is sport. Letting the athletes make some money, and creating sports icons like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt only created more opportunities for big corporations to cash in too. The media giants began covering the Olympic sports differently, it became more about heroes and superstars than the ideals of amateurism (go watch an Olympic broadcast from the 1960's and compare to coverage today to see what I mean).
In the end, it's just business as usual. But think of the effect their decisions made on four generations of athletes, Walter Knox being a prime example...