David Burghley; Lord of the Hurdles, Patron Saint of the Amateur

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For centuries, British Sport was dominated by a ‘certain type of Englishman’. The aristocratic amateur who personified, “an ethos that valued fair play and competing simply for the love of the sport”. This ideology was engrained into the English Upper Classes  and was an education which began at Public School and culminated in the Universities. The privileged, and those who possessed aristocratic pedigree, dominated the sporting milleu with “full blooded hegemonic amateurism”.  The upper classes were advantaged by their ability to afford time and money to compete and train, while people from more modest backgrounds simply couldn’t afford to give up paid work for an indulgence which simply didn’t pay.

However, this structure began to dismantle following the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany. It became painfully clear from these Games that Hitler was training his athletes as a form of propaganda and as vectors for Nazi ideology. Britain responded with a large scale state sponsored sporting initiative. The British Parliament passed the ‘Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937’ which prompted the ‘National Fitness Campaign’. This was a concerted attempt to raise British athletes to the new standards expected of the team by the nation. This meant discarding the complacency and sometimes arrogance of the upper class sportsman and replacing it with better funded and better trained professionals.

By the 1950s, journalists began to criticise vigorously the constraints that Amateur rules placed on the ability of Britain’s athletes to flourish. These criticisms were justified by the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki where the Equestrian team were the only British team to win a Gold medal. The total tally of British medals reached only 11.

As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, it became clear that the amateur sportsman would have to become a dying breed in the face of greater social mobilisation and sporting professionalisation. Otherwise, Britain would struggle to achieve any serious success in Athletics while she remained committed to Amateur principles. 

Amongst all of this monumental change stood Lord Burghley, the ‘elder statesman of British Athletics’, and the inspiration for the urbane, clean cut, aristocrat, Lord Andrew Lindsay played by Nigel Havers in Chariots of Fire. The consummate amateur aristocrat, Lord Burghley’s credo remained throughout his career that, “taking part was more important than winning”. This principal tenet of amateurism was a central feature of Burghley’s character. It embodied not only the ideal of sportsmanship but also a sense of authority, prominent among the British establishment.  

Nevertheless, Burghley’s career was impressive on all fronts, as a national sporting icon. His most famous accomplishment is probably the completion of the race around Trinity Great Court, Cambridge, before the clock rang 12 times. A feat which is yet to be defeated even today. At 19 he represented Britain in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, in 1928 he represented Britain in Amsterdam winning Gold in the 400 metres, and in 1932 he won Silver in the 4x400m relay in Los Angeles. His return from Amsterdam was greeted by the nation with great rejoicing.  Burghley went on to claim with characteristic charm, and only slightly facetiously; 

“What a reception! I would rather have faced a hundred champions than a crowd like that.”

In 1931 he was elected to Parliament for the seat of Peterborough and is perhaps the only sitting MP to be granted a leave of absence to compete in the Olympics, which he did in 1932. Sport and a powerful sense of public service were the two central characteristics of Burghley’s life. 

After leaving active competition he served on the boards of the governing bodies of several athletics institutions. Like Lord Sebastian Coe today, he was the most influential person in British Sports administration promoting the plight of the amateur in all of his labours. His roles included the Presidency of the Amateur Athletics Association (AAA) and the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), as well as Chairman of the Organising Committee for the 1948 Olympic Games in London. At the 1948 Opening ceremony he proclaimed with Churchillian bombast,

“The hour has struck. A visionary dream has become a glorious reality. […] The clarion call went forth to all the athletes of the world. Here today assembled in this vast [Wembley] Arena are assembled 6000 competitors. Here is proof of the inherent strength and vitality of the Olympic Movement.”

He also took on typical establishment duties by becoming Governor and Commander in Chief of Bermuda from 1943-1945 and Lord Rector of the University of St Andrews 1950-1952. These appointments are emblematic of Burghley’s astute political sense. This manifested itself in his support for the Soviet Union to host its first Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. It was a decision for which he was criticised by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who wanted to maintain sanctions following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. 

By 1976, Burghley, who had by now inherited his title as Marquess of Exeter, had given up all of his official roles and went into a well earned retirement. He did, however, remain a member of the International Olympic Committee till the day he died. By the end of his life, amateurism had died with him, to be replaced with arrant professionalism. It never crossed the minds of Burghley or the other establishment members of sports governing bodies that a serious injustice had been committed to athletes from modest backgrounds who had to subordinate to the aristocratic amateur. Nevertheless, Burghley’s legacy as a champion for the amateur as an ideal and as an accomplished athlete himself is assured. Not least through his immortalisation in Chariots of Fire. Today, while it is unlikely that the amateur will ever regain hegemony over the professional in sport, the principle of playing a sport simply for the love of the game is one which never can die as long as there are people to play it. 

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