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Jim Thorpe, Amateurism, and the Poisonous Elitism of Alison Croggon

When engaged in a debate there is a risk that you will arrive at a point when you realize that your opponent is not only incurious and ill-informed, but also willing to say almost anything, no matter how irrelevant and inflammatory, to score rhetorical points. When that point is reached, you realize that any light that might be shed by the debate will be blotted out by the heat; that there’s no point of any further engagement. I didn’t reach that point when Alison Croggon said this:

”…the defining essence of pornography is that it endorses, condones or encourages abusive sexual practice…”

Nor when she said this:

“I do find much pornography – especially the stuff you get on the internet – absolutely horrifying: yes, I’ve looked, young Russian women getting fucked by dogs with the emptiest eyes I’ve ever seen, what is that story? That’s not freedom, that’s slavery and imprisonment and rape. That’s not about life, that’s about killing something.”

Or even this:

“Just quietly, if your film was included in a film festival, it would have a good case for artistic merit; and if I were you I’d be arguing up its artistic merit for all it was worth. But that’s your call.”

Disrespectful? Inflammatory? Condescending? Sure. I don’t like it, but I can take it. What I can’t take is flat out ignorance:

“[M]aking art is an activity that requires specialised skills and knowledge. Like riding bikes at an elite level, for instance. Your average cyclist doesn’t scream “elitist” when he doesn’t make the Tour de France; why should the arts be any different? People engage at all sorts of levels, from your average fanfic writer to JM Coetzee. And that’s as it should be.”

Ms. Croggon’s ignorance not withstanding, elitism has enjoyed a long,  poisonous and perverse relationship with sports. From wikipedia’s entry on Amateur sports:

As a value system, amateurism elevates things done without self-interest above those done for pay (i.e. professionalism.) The term has particular currency in its usage with regard to sports. By definition amateur participants to participate without remuneration. Amateurism was a zealously guarded ideal in the 19th Century especially among the upper classes…

[S]port had always been the preserve of the rich who were the only people who had free time in which to pursue sport, the working classes worked six days a week and sport was forbidden on the sabbath….When the Factories Act gave working men half a day off, the opportunity to take part in sport was suddenly available. Unlike the rich where payment had never been an issue working class sportsmen found it hard to play top level sport due the need to turn up to work. Hence there were competing interests between those who wished sport to be open to all and those who feared that professionalism would destroy the ‘Corinthian spirit’.

Corinthian Spirit! My goodness, that certainly sounds wonderful! The doctrine of amateurism must be noble and good if it protects “Corinthian spirit!” Certainly the protection of “Corinthian spirit” must be a more noble undertaking than who can run fastest, jump highest, throw farthest!

Of course this is nonsense. Amateurism was nothing more than an invention of the haves to keep people who were faster, stronger, more skilled, from beating them at their own games. A particularly ugly episode involved Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th century, who had his gold medals in both the Decathlon and the Pentathlon stripped after it was became known that he had played professional baseball prior to his Olympic victories. Thorpe’s letter to Jim E. Sullivan, president of the Amateur Athletic Union is heartbreaking:

…I hope I will be partly excused by the fact that I was simply an Indian schoolboy and did not know all about such things. In fact, I did not know that I was doing wrong, because I was doing what I knew several other college men had done, except that they did not use their own names….

The college men, the haves,  knew better than to use their own names. Thorpe did not, and was naive enough to believe that simple honesty might serve an a defense. It did not, and Sullivan went out his way to make petition the IOC to strip Thorpe’s gold medals. All in the name of the “Corinthian spirit” of course. Jim E. Sullivan was passionately devoted to the doctrine of amateurism, to the preservation of the “Corinthian spirit.”

Thorpe’s isn’t the only example. Allowing that perhaps Alison  is ignorant of the vile effects of doctrine of Amateurism in the Olympic movement, surely she must know about various misadventures of the Amateur Ideal in cricket; complete with heated debates about whom should and should not be addresses as “Mr.” in newspaper reports.

Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she doesn’t know about the Corinthian spirit either.

Alison does know about “artistic merit”. She doesn’t just know about “artistic merit”, she’s an expert. Besides her own meritorious poems, libretti, and novels, she’s a regarded critic and respected theorist on the question of “artistic merit”:

“Aside from the legal question, the significant question in this particular case, I defend the concept of “artistic merit” because I believe there is such a thing. Otherwise why would I bother writing thousands of words on this blog attempting to discuss precisely this idea?”

Why bother indeed? Why such an enthusiasm to see “artistic merit” enshrined in the law? A devotion to free speech? Maybe she thinks so. Maybe she has good intentions. Maybe Jim E. Sullivan had good intentions too. We all know how important intentions are, artistic and otherwise.

Alison has never heard anyone cry “elitist” in sports because she’s never listened. She’s happy to make an analogy to sports, but ignorant about sports history.  In Alison’s tidy little world, those who merit recognition are recognized as meritorious. The fastest riders have always been invited to the race, and the fastest of them all goes home with the prize.

Alison scoffs at the notion that she embraces elitism. She’s not an elitist, she’s a meritocrat; and in this tidy little meritocracy of hers people engage an art at all different levels: some have their work hung in art galleries; some have their work ripped from store shelves by the police; some are not permitted to have their work seen at all; and some go to jail.

And the denizens of this this tidy little world, this so-called meritocracy, believe that this is just as it should be.

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