The last bastions of amateurism

After rugby union's switch to the professional ranks, you might think no one competes at the highest level purely for the love of their sport. Actually, they do. Mike Rowbottom reports
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The Independent Online
As rugby union sets off in earnest down the road marked "professionalism", the reverberations of its decision are passing through the main body of British sport. It is, in the main, an amateur body.

For a huge number of sportsmen and women in this country, turning professional is simply not an option - the money is not there. Unlike football, athletics, cricket or rugby, their sports do not regularly attract large crowds, and so do not attract large television contracts. Or maybe it is the other way round.

Either way, most are caught in a familiar situation - the phrase "Catch- 22" has widespread currency in British sporting circles. But by no means everyone would embrace professionalism were it to become viable. Many are happy for it to remain the Road Not Taken.

Rowing, despite its dalliance with professional racing a century ago, remains one of Britain's most rigorously amateur sports. Even Stephen Redgrave, four times an Olympic champion, has effectively to earn his living with appearances for his sponsors in insurance and sportswear.

If life is hard for Redgrave, it is harder still for Guin Batten. At 28, she has established herself as Britain's leading single sculler. Despite being a qualified exercise physiologist, she has chosen to devote herself to training as she prepares for next year's Olympics. Thus she struggles by with a little help from her friends, family and a pounds 2,000 grant from the Sports Aid Foundation. She estimates it costs pounds 9,000 a year for her to row, quite apart from living costs. But she is not - she really is not - complaining.

"If, out of the blue, all our events were being televised and my club was offering to pay me to row, I think I would be able to handle it," she said. "But it would remove something.

"Rowing is the sort of sport where people say 'Sod everyone else, we're going to work and we are going to achieve results.' They put their heads down and become an insular group.

"I'm not sure you could do that so successfully if you were being pulled in different directions, going to meetings, signing autographs. The other thing to consider is that if you are paid, and life becomes more comfortable, do you get softer? Does it mean as much to you?

"When it really, really hurts coming into the last part of a race, I never think about the money I might earn. I just think 'I've put so much into this, this is for me.' I definitely feel that hardship makes me stronger in a perverse sort of way."

Jim Bichard, who coaches Batten and others at Thames Rowing Club, also identifies a "masochistic" streak to many rowers. "If we ever went professional it would really split the attitudes within the sport," he said. "It would cause a lot of hassle. I don't think it would make the sport any more competitive. Our rowers don't train any less hard than Linford Christie. A lot of people in rowing like to think of it as one of the few remaining amateur sports in Britain."

That kind of attitude is not confined to rowing. Bernie Cotton, who played hockey for England for 10 years and went on to manage them between 1988 and 1992, recalls the feeling of satisfaction he and his team-mates felt when returning from major championships.

"We might not have won, but we always had a feeling that we were the best of the truly amateur sides. We were proud about that. And I think people in the game still are."

Cotton now coaches his local side, Bishop's Stortford. "Our players arrive in the evenings brain dead after a hard day in the City," he said. "You can't do anything exotic in training. And at the weekend they drink far too much and have a good time. But that's what it's about..."

There is something to be cherished about such a sporting life. Not that Cotton decries what attempts there have been to transform hockey's status.

In 1988, after Sean Kerly and Co had won the Olympic title for Britain, large sums of money began to flow into the sport. Cotton estimates that hockey was five years ahead of rugby union at that point. Remember this was before rugby established the Courage League structure and right at the start of the Geoff Cooke-Will Carling transformation of England's fortunes. But the lack of depth in spectator interest, and the absence of traditional money-making fixtures such as Twickenham boasted, undercut the enterprise.

Like rowing and hockey, swimming has also raised its national profile on occasions, thanks to the achievements of such as David Wilkie, Duncan Goodhew, Adrian Moorhouse and Sharron Davies. But it also labours under the handicap of not being a great spectator sport and only the elite will be able to make some kind of a living in or through the sport.

"To be honest, I don't see swimming changing," said Paul Bush, director of swimming at the Amateur Swimming Association. "We are a relatively open sport, and I think direct payments will replace trust funds for competitors by the year 2000. But I don't think we would ever attract sufficient sponsorship and media attention to do what rugby is doing."

Mike Smith, chief executive of Basketball League Ltd, the company constituted by the 13 premier league clubs, identifies a growing challenge in keeping the balance between unpaid officials and paid competitors.

Earlier this year Smith visited the United States, where he witnessed some of the changes made in the National Basketball Association, where there had been widespread concern over increasing levels of aggression and verbal abuse among players. There has been a toughening up of the rules in the US, and an increase from two to three officials in charge of games. "Maybe this is the kind of thing 'amateur sports' need to be addressing themselves to," Smith said.

Smith, however, believes the distinction between professional and amateur does not apply in his particular sport because of the way it evolved in this country in the early 1970s, when imported US players were paid and co-existed happily with unpaid home-grown team-mates. "The notion of professional and amateur is really an irrelevancy in basketball," Smith said. In that respect, it is more open than most British sports.