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Millionaire medalists: Will London 2012 remain true to Olympic spirit?

John Makely / NBC News

As a member of the U.S. basketball team, Ray Lumpp won gold at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Lumpp played in an era where amateurism was central to the Olympic ideal. "Even if I just wanted to play professional basketball ... just by saying I wanted to be a pro, I would have been removed," Lumpp said. "The Olympics was supposed to be for fun and games -- no compensation. I was a gold medal Olympic champion, but I owed money."

Updated at 10:05 a.m. ET: LONDON — On August 14, 1948, Ray Lumpp stood in London's Wembley Stadium. As "The Star-Spangled Banner" played and "Old Glory" fluttered in the breeze, an Olympic gold medal was placed round his neck.

"To be in the Olympics was a dream come true," Lumpp, 89, told NBCNews.com from his Long Island home. "To receive a gold medal … it still shines in my heart." 

In the aftermath of World War II, parts of London still lay in ruins, food was rationed and the "strictly amateur" athletes were put up in basic accommodation. But "The Austerity Games" remain a special event for people like Lumpp.

In sharp contrast to 1948, the London 2012 Olympics has a total budget in excess of $17 billion, a sum greater than the GDP of many of the 200-plus competing nations. About 9 million tickets have been sold and a global TV audience of billions is expected to watch more than 10,000 athletes compete.

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Amid the glorification of multi-millionaires competing in sports including basketball, tennis and soccer, the sea of corporate sponsorship and fortress-style security — has the Olympic spirit been forgotten? What would previous Olympians make of today’s event?

Would the Ancient Greeks — who staged the first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. — give their blessing or call down the wrath of Zeus? And what would the founder of the modern Games, French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, make of the demise of the amateur ethos?

Courtesy of Ray Lumpp

Ray Lumpp, seen here in 1948, is due to travel to London to attend this summer's Olympics.

Lumpp played in an era where, unlike today, amateurism was central to the Olympic ideal.

"Even if I just wanted to play professional basketball, I would have been removed from the American team — just by saying I wanted to be a pro, I would have been removed," Lumpp told NBCNews.com. "The Olympics was supposed to be for fun and games — no compensation."

"I was married with one child and one on the way. I was a gold medal Olympic champion, but I owed money," he said. "You couldn't have sponsors, you couldn't do this, you couldn't do that ... you have to live and you have to eat."

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After Lumpp returned to the U.S., he signed a professional contract with the New York Knicks and was soon "out of hock."

'For the love of it'
While he said that the acceptance of professionals into the games was a good idea — meaning countries could send their best competitors and a level playing field for all — he added that "sometimes money is too important, you lose the ideals of the Games."

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"The Games are about taking part, peace and understanding, and competing against one another, not fighting …  playing against each other for the love of it," he said.

"[In 1948] we had great admiration for the British people. Whatever they had, that was it … but whatever they had, they shared it and put on a great Games under the conditions,” he said.

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Lumpp said the success of the 1948 Games – the first since Munich 1936 in Hitler’s Germany — had been vital.

"After that 12-year period when there were no Olympics, it was important, very important, that the next Games be a success because it would affect the future of the Games … because people might say 'it's not worth it,' and it could fade away,” he said.

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The gap between Games was somewhat longer when Coubertin hit upon the idea of recreating the evemt.

The Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius had decreed in 393 A.D. that "pagan cults" such as the Olympic Games would no longer be permitted. Some 1,503 years later, the first modern event was held in Athens.

Modern Games born from war
Despite the emphasis on promoting global harmony, Coubertin’s big idea was born out of a war.

"It may be a little bit disappointing. You may think it's a product of peace," Dikaia Chatziefstathiou, an expert on the Olympics and an academic at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, told NBCNews.com.

France had not long been defeated in the 1870-1871 war against Prussia and there was concern that the country’s youth were "not very active," she said. "The French government worried that the army wasn't strong enough."

Coubertin, an expert on education, was brought in to shake things up and, on a fact-finding mission to England, he noted the emphasis on studying Ancient Greece and Rome at the country’s private schools, and was also impressed by the emphasis on sport and "muscular Christianity."

This, he thought, could be the answer to France’s diminished military might.

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But the late 19th century was also the so-called Age of Optimism when it was hoped that the world could put an end to war, disease and other great scourges. International movements such as the Scouts, the international Esperanto language, the YMCA and others sprang up "all about making society and the world a more peaceful place,” Chatziefstathiou said.

"He [Coubertin] came to the idea that actually sport can be used to have a peaceful celebration among the nations because he saw the power of sport,” Chatziefstathiou said. "He said 'Why not use sport and education to actually unite nations around the world?'"

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The idea caught the world’s imagination, but the first Olympiad in 1896 was a very different games to 2012 or even 1948.

There were no women. "He [Coubertin] really didn't want women to sweat. He didn't want women to have any physical exertion," Chatziefstathiou said, explaining this in terms of the social norms of the aristocracy of the time.

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Also, most of the 1896 competitors were members of the upper classes and, if the right sort of person turned up, they just might find themselves allowed to take part.

George Stuart Robertson was one such athlete. He wrote an Ancient Greek ode that was recited at the end of the 1896 games and won a bronze medal in the doubles tennis. He also took part in the discus, which was perhaps a mistake, as he is still on record as achieving the worst-ever throw of about 27-and-a-half yards.

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Crowds walk around the Olympic Stadium in Athens during the 1896 Summer Games.

However -- in a sign of the Olympics' ability to break barriers — one of the heroes of 1896 was a Greek peasant called Spyros Louis, winner of the marathon.

"He became a big symbol of the Games … because without money, without preparation he came and ran in his traditional [Greek] clothing," Chatziefstathiou said.

While Coubertin subscribed to amateurism, she said she did not think he would not be appalled by the money in today’s Games. "If he saw that the movement wouldn't really survive without commercialism … I don't think he would be against commercialism with controls," she said.

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"If Coubertin came back [today], he would absolutely love the spirit of the people, and how many people of all ages, all nationalities are all there and enjoying it, and really actually believing it [the Olympic spirit]," she said.

Concerns over corruption, such as betting scandals, might be a worry, but Coubertin would be proud of how "his baby" had grown, she said.

"He wouldn't say 'Oh my God, this is a monstrosity' because he was so keen to keep the movement going," Chatziefstathiou said. "I think he would be absolutely over the moon."

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The participation of women, however, might prove too big a step for a man of his background, she suggested. "I don't think he would like this. He would be able to adapt to many things, but this is a spectacle I don't think he would be keen to see."

Ancient Games: Naked and men-only
Most Ancient Greeks were similarly against women at the Olympic Games, and to a much greater degree. With the exception of the priestess of Demeter, who oversaw events for religious reasons, any woman found watching the events faced being killed.

However, at least one female spectator is said to have survived the experience.

Kallipateira, the mother of a boxer, sneaked in dressed as a man to watch her son compete, Armand D’Angour, a fellow and tutor in classics at Jesus College, Oxford University, told NBCNews.com.

"Then when her son wins, she jumps up with delight and gives herself away as a woman," he said.

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Summoned by the judges, she told them how sport was part of her and her family's life, saying "this is who I am." And the judges, D’Angour said, decided to let her off.

The idea of female athletes would have been shocking for most Greeks, "apart from one city state, which was Sparta," he said.

The Trustees of the British Museum

This marble statue of an athlete stooping to throw the discus is one of several Roman copies made of a lost bronze originally crafted in the 5th century BC by the sculptor Myron.

In Sparta, women had a degree of equality and were known to be "very sporty."

"Spartan women were considered to be women with six-packs —  strong, not necessarily beautiful, and quite scary," D’Angour said.

However, all Ancient Greeks would have been more in tune with the today’s Olympics when it came to ideas about money.

D’Angour said athletes were sponsored by their cities and spent years in training.

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"And of course if they won, they were feted, celebrated and odes were written for them — an expensive business. They would be fed at public expense for the remainder of their lives. There was a lot of money in it," he added.

Flame 'nothing to do with Ancient Greece'
The amateur ideal or so-called “Corinthian spirit” was “a bit of an invention really,” D’Angour said.

Other modern inventions include the Olympic flame — "that’s nothing to do with Ancient Greece, it comes from the idea of the eternal flame in Rome" — and the Olympic rings, he said.

D’Angour, author of Ancient Greek odes to the Athens and London Olympics, said Ancient Greeks would be shocked by "the completely irreligious" nature of the modern games.

"Zeus, the head of their gods, was very much in the center of the games," he said. A central message was "as great as human beings strive to be, they can never be as great as the gods."

The Trustees of the British Museum

This large mosaic of Hercules, the legendary founder of the Olympic Games and patron of athletes, dates from the Roman period.

And they might also be disappointed that the athletes were wearing any clothes.

"They competed naked — you’d see a lot of dangly bits. We don’t really know the origins of that. One story says a competitor in a running race tripped over something he was wearing, and after that they decided everyone should go naked," D’Angour said.

"I think it was to do with a celebration of the body beautiful. They were keen on the beauty of the bodies, shining, oiled bodies with fantastic musculature and beautiful balance," he said.

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But overall D'Angour said he thought that any Ancient Greeks transported to London 2012 be pleasantly surprised.

"The ambition to do well, the striving to achieve excellence in a sport … Let’s say they got over the fact they were living in a different century, I think they would find it fairly familiar and would be excited," he said.


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They might be a little bemused by events such as synchronized swimming, he said, but the 100 meters and the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, would likely be popular. But even Bolt would be measured against ancient heroes, whose true speed can only be guessed at.

"I think what they would feel is 'this chap [Bolt] is a bloody fast runner' but – because they didn’t have records —  they would say 'Diagoras,' —  who ran in 426 BC — 'was pretty good too, I can tell you,'" D’Angour said.

And there might be a few requests for one ancient favorite, chariot racing, to be restored.

"That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?" D’Angour said. "Can you imagine? It'd be like Ben Hur all over again."

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