Story: Amateurism and professionalism

Page 2. Amateurism in New Zealand

All images & media in this story

Founding of sports associations

Between 1880 and 1914 amateurism became the dominant mode of sport in New Zealand. At least 16 national sports associations were founded during this period and most of them – including athletics, cricket, hockey and rugby – were amateur. Even rugby league, often labelled a professional game, was founded as an amateur sport in New Zealand.

However, prize money in sport did not vanish entirely. The New Zealand Cyclists Union (later renamed the League of Wheelmen) was formed in 1892 to organise events for ‘cash amateurs’, in opposition to the strictly amateur New Zealand Cyclists Alliance. The New Zealand Athletic Union, founded in 1905, oversaw a variety of events involving prizes. Golf also accommodated both amateur and professional players. Despite these pockets of professionalism, amateurism became the dominant form of sport in terms of participation and media coverage.

No roses for Yvette

The inflexibility of strictly defined amateurism is highlighted in the career of the 1952 Olympic long-jump gold medallist Yvette Williams. A rose breeder planned to name a rose after Williams, and there were plans to use her image on a health stamp, the proceeds of which funded children to attend health camps. Both ideas were abandoned because it was feared they might compromise Williams’s amateur status.

Sport for all

Despite its connections to class privilege (wealthy sportspeople could better afford to train and play for no income), amateurism became linked with egalitarianism in New Zealand. Because many New Zealanders were prepared to give their time freely to amateur sport, amateurism provided access to sport for all classes. Amateurism was also promoted in New Zealand schools and benefited from the support of local government, which often provided grounds and facilities at a relatively low cost. The combination of voluntary administration and local government support made sport available to most people.

Problems with professionalism

Some councils viewed ‘professional’ codes, as rugby league was sometimes deemed, unfavourably and were reluctant to allow them to use their facilities. Maintaining amateurism was also seen as essential to maintaining links with British and Commonwealth sporting organisations. There were concerns that if New Zealand was isolated from imperial sport by rejecting amateurism, it would be denied meaningful competition. Tours to and from Britain were, financially speaking, very important for sports such as rugby.

In some respects, the amateur versus professional debate was largely an academic one in New Zealand. In Britain professional sport was an established fact, but few in New Zealand believed professional team sports were financially sustainable. And amateur regulations were not always strictly enforced. Many former rugby league players were quietly readmitted to rugby union, despite having supposedly breached their amateur status.

‘The most amateur country in the world’

With a few exceptions, New Zealand sport was overwhelmingly amateur until at least the 1970s. A. E. Dome, manager of the 1924 Chinese Universities football team, asserted that New Zealand was ‘the most amateur country in the world’.1 Many New Zealanders took pride in the fact that their amateur athletes, such as Yvette Williams and Peter Snell, could and did beat the very best in the world. Such triumphs reinforced New Zealand’s self-image as a healthy society where sport was available to all. Social policies such as the 40-hour working week and restricted weekend trading hours indirectly supported amateurism because they left Saturday free for sport (which was not widely played on Sundays until the late 1960s).

  1. Evening Post, 17 July 1924, p. 13. Back
How to cite this page:

Geoff Watson, 'Amateurism and professionalism - Amateurism in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Geoff Watson, published 5 Sep 2013