One of the most divisive issues in sport in the 20th century was that of ‘amateurism’. When the first Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race was rowed in 1829, it was obviously between ‘amateurs’, as were the events at Henley Royal Regatta which was established ten years later, and indeed the modern Olympics which arrived in 1896.
Yet these competitions belonged to a separate world from the professional rowing races which flourished at the same time, particularly in Newcastle and London, which had significant money prizes, huge crowds of spectators and substantial betting. Typical of Britain at the time, these two types of racing were participated in by different social classes with the professionals coming from working class stock and the amateur races being the preserve of the upper and middle classes.
But how do you define amateur?
In 1883, a year after the Amateur Rowing Association (ARA) was founded, it set out a long-lasting and increasingly controversial definition of an amateur by specifying what he was not. This included anyone who:
- Had ever taken part in any open competition for a stake, money, or entrance fee.
- Had ever knowingly competed against a professional for a prize.
- Had ever taught, pursued, or assisted in the practice of athletic exercises for any kind of profit.
- Had ever been employed in or about boats, or in manual labour for money or wages.
- Had been by trade or employment, for wages, a mechanic, artisan or labourer, or engaged in any menial duty.
- Was a member of a boat or rowing club containing anyone liable to disqualification under the above clauses.
Golly. While most of us would go with Rule 1 today as a definition of a professional as opposed to an amateur, Rule 2 is a bit of a surprise, Rule 3 decidedly raises the eyebrows, Rule 4 starts questionably and then totally astounds with the introduction a bar on any kind of manual labour, which is underlined in the totally class-driven Rule 5. And Rule 6 is just asking the whole sport to implode. Basically, if you didn’t work with a pen (if you even worked at all), the ARA didn’t want you.
As a direct result of this divisive definition, a separate governing body – the National Amateur Rowing Association – was set up in 1890, which actually used a fairly similar definition of amateur but without the bits about manual labour or the whole of Rule 5.
The rowing historian Chris Dodd recorded in the British Rowing Almanack in 1983 that, “The beginning of the end [for the bar on certain types of non-rowing employment] came in 1936 when the Australian eight on their way to the Berlin Olympic Games were barred from Henley on the grounds that they were policemen.” Rule 5 and the manual labour bar were duly dropped from the ARA Constitution in 1938 (which led to the eventual amalgamation of the ARA and NARA in 1956), but the rest of the rules about amateurism remained harsh.
READERS! If you’re getting bored of all this stuff about rules and have got to grips with the basic concept that that professionals were both questionably-defined and banned, skip on down to the section on the (probably totally unintended) consequences of the obsession with amateur status.
ARA Constitution from the 1949 Almanack
The Association shall consisting of Clubs which adopt the following definition of an Amateur: No person shall be considered an amateur rower, sculler or coxwain –
- Who has ever rowed or steered in any race for a stake, money or entrance-fee.
- Who has ever knowingly rowed or steered with or against a professional for any prize.
- Who has ever taught, pursued, or assisted in the practice of rowing, sculling or other athletic exercises of any kind for profit.
All Clubs affiliated to the Association shall confine their membership to Amateurs within such definition.
An Amateur may not receive any contributions towards his expenses in competing in a race or a regatta except from the Club which he represents. For regattas abroad an Amateur may accept free travel and accommodation provided that the club to which he belongs informs the ARA of his intentions of accepting the same, and he satisfies himself that such free travel and accommodation will not be made the subject of any commercial advertisement.
In short, you were a professional if you had raced for a prize or been paid as a boatman or boat builder or to coach rowing or any other sport. And all this at a time when those of the country’s rowing clubs which had survived the Second World War war needed new members more than ever.
A separate organisation at the time, the Women’s ARA had its own rules which arguably went even further than those of the men’s ARA, barring any competitor:
- Who has ever competed for a money prize, or monetary consideration or for any declared wager or staked bet.
- Who has ever engaged in or taught any Athletic Exercises or Sports as a chief means of livelihood [PE teachers were therefore out, but teachers of other subjects who also coached at their school were acceptable – Ed.]
- Who has ever sold or raised money on any prize won by her. [Can’t flog any silver cups then – Ed.]
- Who has ever been employed in or about boats for money or wages.
- Who has ever taken part knowingly in any competition with anyone who is not an Amateur as herein defined.
- Who is disqualified as an amateur in any other Branch of Sport.
In the 1953 Almanack the ARA’s “laws” added the WARA’s Rule 6 as its own Rule 4. It also mentioned an amnesty for those who had infringed rules 1 or 2 before 1 July 1948 provided that they had never contravened Rules 3 or 4.
The 1959 Almanack includes FISA’s Rules of Racing (1954 edition, with 1958 amendments), which extend the ban on non-amateurs to officials too:
An amateur oarsman is one who practices oarsmanship for pleasure and recreation, without obtaining from it any direct or indirect monetary gain and who is recognised as an amateur by his national Association.
Trainers, instructors, and coaches teaching sport for gain or profit direct or indirect, can in no circumstances compete or act as judges or be members of a Race or other Committee. (Notwithstanding this rule, a schoolmaster, even if engaged specifically to instruct rowing in addition to academic subjects, shall not thereby forfeit his amateur status.)
Change without progress from the ARA
Only in the 1966 Almanack did the ARA clear up the point about school teachers in its own constitution, adding the words in italics to Rule 3 which stated that a competitor would not be considered an amateur, “Who has ever taught, pursued, or assisted in the practice of rowing, sculling or other athletic exercises of any kind for profit (but a schoolteacher shall not lose his amateur status by virtue of giving instruction in rowing to pupils of his own school in addition to teaching academic subjects.)” But this gave the all-clear to teachers of academic’ subjects who also coached rowing for a few games periods a week. PE teachers were still ‘professionals’.
Perhaps faced with the realisation that the Eastern bloc crews which the British team were competing against at World and European Championships and Olympic Games might not be working full time in ‘normal’ jobs, this version of the ARA’s rules added a new restriction:
In no circumstances can any person be accepted as an amateur if he leaves his normal paid employment either temporarily or permanently in order to devote himself to rowing, and has no means of supporting himself.
[Presumably ‘landed gentry’ or anyone else with a private income, or who was supported by their parents were OK, though – Ed.]
The injunction against not working so that you can row had been established philosophically in the 1961 Almanack where the unidentified author of the ‘Review of 1960’, wrote:
“In some countries where international sporting success has become a matter of national prestige, rowing… can apparently become a man’s sole occupation for months at a time. In this country we recognise the strength of character required for a top amateur to dedicate his spare time to his chosen sport, but it is foreign to our ideals for amateur sport to be permitted to interfere with employment or studies and in this respect our outlook is unlikely to change.”
In 1967 the ARA dropped Rule 4 that barred anyone “Who is disqualified as an amateur in any other Branch of Sport,” and added a further relaxation for clubs; “Persons who are not amateurs within such a definition shall not be disqualified from membership of a club affiliated to the Association, but may not compete in any amateur races.”
A few months before she died, the ARA’s long-serving Chairman Di Ellis told me that her club, St George’s Ladies RC, was banned from racing for a season some time in the 1960s because it had included a PE teacher in a racing crew, although St George’s Ladies crews do appear in the lists of winners in the Almanack every year during that period, so perhaps the sanction may have only been a threat to deter the club from further infractions of this rule.
The next change to the definition of amateur status came in the 1978 Almanack which saw a re-write and consolidation of Rules 1 to 3 with the teacher exemption that had formed part of Rule 3 and the “professionals are OK in your club so long as they don’t race” amendment hived off as separate Rules 2 and 3. The new Rule 1 incorporated a very significant shift with regards what were allowable expenses that could be reimbursed, and also recognised training expenses for the first time:
a) No person shall be considered an amateur who derives or who has derived profit or material gain as a direct result of coaching or competing in the sport.
b) Subject to the provisions of the Rules of the Association governing expenses, an amateur shall not forfeit amateur status by receiving the following repayments of costs if they are specifically incurred through coaching, training or competition in regattas:
i) Legitimate out of pocket expenses.
ii) Loss of profits or salary.
There was a small change in the wording of Rule 1(a) in the 1982 Almanack with “as a direct result of coaching or competing in the sport” being replaced with just “as a direct result of competing in the sport”. Dropping coaching from the definition of what constitutes an amateur implies a very significant shift, although the retention of Rule 3 “A teacher shall not lose amateur status by giving instruction in rowing in addition to academic subjects to students within the establishment by which he is employed” does throw the apparent change into doubt because it would be unnecessary if the limitation of Rule 1a to gain from competing no longer applied to gain from other activities within rowing such as coaching.
In 1983 the ARA saw a considerable structural reorganisation as it became a Limited Company and so its constitution was replaced by Articles of Association. The definition of amateur was unchanged but the section on expenses altered to say that, “An amateur may not receive any contribution towards his expenses in training or competing in a race or regatta except from the funds of the Association or funds administered by the Association.” This covered Sports Aid Foundation grants and, indeed, British Olympic Association funding, of course.
After the 1988 Olympic Games the International Olympic Committee removed all remaining restrictions on professional competitors. National Lottery funding for GB elite athletes was introduced in 1997 and the amateur requirement was finally officially removed from the ARA’s Articles of Association in the following year. The organisation changed its name to British Rowing in 2009.
The implications of amateur status
The amateur status rules had consequences in a wide range of situations. Here are just a few.
Being defined by your father’s job
When 17-year old Shirley Radley was selected to compete for England at the women’s international regatta in 1951, although the event was organised by the then separate Women’s ARA, the ARA wrote to her querying whether she was eligible to take part as she was the daughter of the famous River Lea boatbuilder Sid Radley. At the time, women were often considered to be defined socially by their father’s occupation – until they married, at which point they were defined by their husband’s.
“Shirley was furious about the letter,” recalls her husband Tom Boyde in Clive Radley’s book The Radleys of the Lea, “But nothing came of it and she was able to compete.”
Just teaching rowing one afternoon a week
Former international rower and full-time mum of five Dorothea Cockett risked never being being able to race again when a school where she agreed to coach for one afternoon a week wanted to treat her like it treated all its other staff (i.e. properly) and pay her for her time. The situation was resolved by the school making donations to Dorothea’s club instead.
Becoming a National Coach
In 1973 Penny Chuter became the ARA’s third (paid) National Coach, but in doing so had to give up her right to race because it clearly put her in contravention of the amateur status rules. Some of her international team-mates from the 1960s therefore decided to take her to one last regatta.
“We were long out of training,” remembers cox Mac McKendrick, “But we decided we would have a weekend in Devon and entered Torbay regatta. A motley four of us plus Penny drove down to Torquay. The next day it was so rough that the boats coming across the bay from Paignton all sank and eventually they cancelled the event. As we had driven down from London they looked at us and said, ‘You’re all Internationals, do you want an outing?’ Like fools we said, ‘Yes, please!’ Now I learned to row on the sea when I was about five and waves did not usually bother me but I was terrified! It was like trying to row through the alps. Anyway we got back safely and Penny had her last outing as an amateur before going on to higher things.”
The thorny issue of whether sponsorship constituted “Profit or material gain as a direct result of… competing in the sport,” frequently raised its head in the 1970s and 1980s when sponsors had started to emerge but the amateur status rule was firmly in place.
The solution, as mentioned earlier, was that it was fine so long as the sponsor made their agreement with the ARA rather than directly with any athlete, and therefore any funds or benefits the athlete received came from the governing body. In early 1977, some of the GB men who had won a silver at the 1976 Montreal Olympics in the eight were still training internationally and, frustrated at the low level of financial support they were getting from the ARA, made an appeal during a TV interview for sponsors, which all sounds perfectly reasonable except, as ARA Secretary Bill Clark pointed out to Rowing magazine, “They could come close to endangering their amateur status is the usual policy of sponsors negotiating through governing bodies is not followed.”
Thinking more commercially, in an interview in Rowing around the same time, women’s squad coach Chris Blackwall made the very valid point that if an individual or crew was unable to race as a result of losing its amateur status, there would be nothing in it for their sponsor who would rapidly disappear.
The photo at the top of this page is of Kat Copeland and Sophie Hosking who won the Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls for Great Britain at the Olympic Games in 2012. The GB Rowing Team – which was so hugely successful at London 2012, winning four gold (three by women’s crews – our first ever Olympic golds), two silver and thee bronze medals – was sponsored by Siemens from 2006-2012 in a £3.2 million deal.
Photo © Helena Smalman-Smith.