CHANGES: The Progress of Professionalism

Published on June 16th, 2013

The question was asked in Scuttlebutt 3857 what other sports – besides sailing – that find amateurs and professionals competing together. The reader responses offered a short list, with most of the examples noting the practice of top amateurs competing in professional sports.

For sailing, the balance is opposite. Most regattas are for amateurs, with few limits on the participation of professionals. Here Larry Zeitlin shares his observations of how professionalism has influenced sport:

The Olympics used to be a competition restricted only to amateurs. Remember Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals simply because he played one summer of semipro baseball. Then the local associations governing each sport allowed professionals to play to raise the level of the competition.

The last Olympic Games that I remember amateurs beating professionals was the U.S. hockey team beating the Russian government-supported team in the 1980 winter Olympics. That was 33 years ago. Then there was the “Dream Team” in basketball where the combined annual salary of the professional players on the U.S. team approximated the national budget.

The fact of the matter is that while one can achieve a reasonable level of competence in most sports as a dedicated amateur, to truly excel requires full time participation. That can only be achieved by total sponsorship, supplied by national teams or corporate support, or by turning professional and getting fans to buy tickets. There are exceptions, as boat owners now pay for the best crew, with billionaires funding teams in pursuit of personal America’s Cup glory.

For the most part we amateurs will be left far behind in our amateur sport. Back in the late 1940s, I raced C and E class scows. I won more than my share of races and was, for one brief shining moment, rated the best C class scow skipper in the U.S. Then the Melges clan and their ilk entered the sport and we amateurs who sailed only during the brief midwest summer season were left far behind.

It’s all too bad, and while I still enjoy sailing, it’s now just for weekend cruising.

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