With the 2014 Winter Olympics just around the corner, and at the end of a week filled with exposing institutional hypocrisy, let's remember a man who was instrumental in the abolition of Olympic amateurism: Professor David Charles Young.
D.C.Y., as his students called him, died on 5 February 2013—almost one year to the day before Sochi's opening ceremonies. He took his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1962; at 25, this is the academy's equivalent of a 10.1 in the 100-meter dash. As an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, he pole-vaulted for two weeks before quitting because of the team's no-smoking policy in the locker room. It was not uncommon for him to enjoy a canned Busch while conducting seminars.
As athletes like Steve Prefontaine and Steve Scott showed us, the life of a high-level athlete with Olympic aspirations was difficult before the 1980's. Pre famously lived on food-stamps out of his trailer. Steve Scott recalls receiving stacks of bills literally under the table in seedy hotel rooms after races. Because of the IOC's idealistic and draconian policy regarding compensation—looking at you, NCAA—the cream of the world's athletic crop lived on a pittance lest they forfeit the opportunity to perform on the world's most-esteemed stage.
Professor Young's The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics cannot be held solely responsible for the paradigm shift that led to the Dream Team, but it at least lent academic legitimacy to arguments against the IOC'S amateurism requirement. The IOC's logic, such as it was, ran as follows: the ancient Greeks (and Romans after them) sought and received no monetary compensation for their participation in the Olympic, Nemean, Isthmian, or Pythian Games, so in the spirit of that noble attitude, modern athletes shouldn't either. The evidence for this is downright non-existent, however; on the contrary, Young wrote:
From Homer on, as we hear of large athletic winnings, the concept of amateurism in any sense is wholly foreign, often even antithetical, to the nature and vocabulary of Greek athletics. Yet our own interest in this matter—our legacy from the modern Olympics and 19th-century British elitism—leads us to exaggerate its importance. In classical studies "amateurism" is an irrelevant distraction. (Olympic Myth, 164).
He goes on to point out that in Pindar's victory songs (and, to be sure, in Homer before him), athletic victors are always shown receiving quite lucrative compensation for their efforts at the games. These enticements include state-sponsored banquets, hefty purses, and extravagant tools of warcraft. In short, ancient Olympians were professional athletes.
D.C.Y. has been gone almost a year now, and his wake took place on 24 August 2013 in Gainesville, FL, where he enjoyed drinking cheap beer and smoking cigarettes with his graduate students. In addition to The Olympic Myth, he wrote extensively on Pindar's victory odes and the history of track and field. He maintained, quite rightly, that the ancient Greek pankration and modern MMA fighting are one in the same. He will be remembered as a profound historian of ancient and modern sport, a patient mentor, and avid Gator fan. Requiescat in pace.