Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, founder of the International Olympic Committee and the generally acknowledged father of the modern Olympic Games, envisioned a field of amateur athletes for whom "the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well."

Very sporting, but perhaps less so when one learns that de Coubertin was against female athletes' participation, and that he came from the kind of aristocratic background that enabled leisure sporting pursuits without regard to concerns about earning a living.

Although for years the Olympics touted so-called amateurism in sport, the truth is that the Olympic playing field has seldom truly been level. Until the 1950s, Olympic equestrian competitors had to be cavalry officers; that is to say, college-educated men and Army leaders. There was no opportunity for the rank and file or for the non-military rider, no matter how talented. And do I need to point out that a cavalry officer was by definition a professional equestrian, or at least an equestrian professional?

Fans love the idea of the amateur athlete--one whose dedication to a sport is motivated purely by love of the sport, unsullied by finances and sponsorship obligations. The rationale, I suppose, is that a true amateur embodies the highest form of sportsmanship and therefore will never be tempted to stoop to cheating, doping, or other nefarious means of winning at any cost.

Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, there are always some who will try to win at all costs, even if they don't need the pot of the gold at the end of the Olympic-medals rainbow.

What's more, the Baron presumably did not anticipate such Games-related issues as broadcast coverage, live streaming, and security. Olympic Games are crazy expensive to produce; things like sponsorships, tickets, and merchandise sales help to defray those costs. They're also crazy expensive to qualify for and to attend. Elite athletes today are almost always professionals, often with business deals and sponsorships of their own; there's no other way they'd be able to afford to train, travel, and compete to the extent that's required in order to make it to an Olympics.

But the Paralympic Games aren't quite at that level of production expense, at least not yet (although they're garnering more attention every quadrennium). And here we see athletes who perhaps aren't "brands" with agents, clothing lines, clinic tours, and book deals (although some surely deserve them!).

I took a look at the online biographies of a random smattering of equestrians at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Some do indeed list their professions as "athlete" or "horse trainer." But many have real jobs, so to speak. We amateur riders and horse-sport fans can identify with those Paralympic equestrians who are taking time off from work or school to compete. Perhaps, generally speaking, we now have more in common with the Paralympic equestrians than we do with their Olympic brethren.

 

paralympics

Hot-rodding victory lap: 2012 Paralympic Games Grade II Freestyle medalists (from left) Britta Napel of Germany (silver), Natasha Baker of Great Britain (gold), and Angelika Trabert of Germany (bronze).