As you tune into the 2021 Summer Olympics with 10,305 athletes competing in 339 events, you’re probably seeing some familiar faces. Professional athletes like Megan Rapinoe and Naomi Osaka brought their skills to the international stage at the 2021 Summer Olympics, but it hasn’t always been the norm for professionals to join the games. In some cases, star athletes struggle balancing their obligations to their teams and fans back home with vying for gold at the Olympics. Whether professional athletes can compete in the Olympics has long been a point of controversy.
Here’s everything you need to know about how professional athletes slowly made their way into competing at the Olympics.
Professional Athletes Were Originally Barred From Competing
The Olympics were originally designed to allow amateur athletes the chance to compete on an international stage. The first Olympic Games held in Athens, Greece in 1896 were restricted to those who didn't get paid to play sports of any kind, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The Olympic congress was pretty serious about the amateurism rule, even if the athlete was paid for playing a sport different from their Olympic sport. Per the Smithsonian, track athlete Jim Thorpe was stripped of his 1912 gold medals he won at the Summer Olympics in Sweden when it was later found out that he’d received compensation for playing minor league baseball a few years earlier. (He was posthumously re-awarded his medals.)
The amateurism rule stuck around for several more decades. The 1964 rulebook from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made it clear that "amateur" meant someone who had a different job from the sport they competed in and had not earned income from their sport, including any revenue from sponsorships.
The IOC’s Rules Gradually Changed
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the rules really began to shift. In October 1986, the IOC decided to officially loosen its amateurism policy for pro athletes by allowing the international federations of the participating sports to decide whether to allow professional athletes to compete as well. But it was a formality at that point, as plenty of major league sports had already been relaxing eligibility rules, per Global Sports Matters.
Because it was decided on a sport-by-sport basis, not all professional athletes were given the green light at the same time as others, and many entities — the IOC, international and national sports federations, chiefly — all had to sign off before they could compete in the Olympics. However, sport by sport, changes started taking place.
The floodgates for allowing professionals to compete in the Olympics began to open in 1984, per The New York Times. That year, the International Soccer Federation eased its rules regarding World Cup players competing at the Olympics; the International Tennis Federation began allowing pros under the age of 20 to compete at the games; and the United States Tennis Association gave the thumbs up for pros to compete at the Olympics regardless of age. This began a gradual shift towards allowing pros into the Olympic Games.
One year later, the IOC decided in 1985 to allow professional athletes under the age of 23 to compete in tennis, soccer, and hockey for the upcoming games, per the Times. While it was considered a temporary decision that would take effect just for the 1988 Winter and Summer Games in South Korea, the decision stuck.
During the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, tennis was open to all professionals, setting the stage for pro athletes like Venus and Serena Williams to compete. (The Williams sisters made their Olympics debut at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.) Changes to the amateur rules continued to follow, and soon household names were competing for the gold. The IOC allowed professional basketball players to compete in the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, launching stars like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson into a legion of amateurs with the “Dream Team.” In 1998, the Nagano Winter Olympics officially opened its doors to all professional hockey players.
Even into the 21st century, the rules were still changing. It wasn't until June 2016, that boxers became eligible to compete in the Summer Games in Rio, according to The New York Times.
Pro Athletes Aren't Always Allowed To Compete
Even if they're eligible, pro athletes are still beholden to their leagues' and teams' whims. Each sport also operates on its own schedule, which complicates participating in the games.
Prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics, the NHL announced in April 2017 that its players would not be competing in the PyeongChang Games in February 2018, after the league and the IOC had failed to reach any agreements on the participation conditions. Hockey is deep into its season when the Winter Games come around every four years, which is also a consideration for players. Similarly, some basketball players find it difficult to compete in the Summer Olympics since it comes so soon after the season, especially if your team makes it to the NBA Finals. The WNBA created a break in the 2021 season to allow for players to compete in the Tokyo Games, with WNBA play resuming on Aug. 15.
Wrestling is one Olympic sport that still keeps the amateur rule tight by not not allowing non-amateur fighters to compete at the Olympics. It was almost cut at the 2021 Summer Olympics after the IOC originally voted to remove it back in 2013, but Greco-Roman wrestling, which is widely considered to be the oldest Olympic sport, was eventually brought back along with freestyle wrestling due to international backlash. But you won’t see any WWE stars facing off in Tokyo — it’s all about amateur athletes facing off on the mat during the games.
It’s taken a long time to bend the rules of amateurism at the Olympics, but with most sports allowing professional athletes to compete in the games as of 2021, you can expect to continue seeing famous faces go for the gold at the Winter and Summer Games.
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