Why There is No Consensus on the Definition of an Athlete


The word “athlete” is a romanization of the Greek word άθλητὴς, athlētēs, meaning one who participates in a contest, which is derived from ἂθλος, áthlos, or ἂθλον, áthlon, meaning a contest or feat, or prize. (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, 2014) The Ancient Olympic Games, held between 776AD to 393AD, were the athletic competition highlight of Greek culture and the word athlete became synonymous with Olympic victory. (IOC, 2019) The Roman ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body was exemplified in Olympic competition. The complete first line from the Roman poet Juvenal’s Satire X, however, says, “orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano (You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body) thought to suggest that the praying for a long life was misguided because the Roman gods had provided Roman citizens with virtues listed in the subsequent lines of the poem. (Young, 2005)

A healthy mind in a healthy body took on its meaning relative to sports and physical training in the modern era in the mid-19th century by the Liverpool (UK) Athletic Club to promote the rigorous academic and physical training of a complete education. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic games and founder of the International Olympic games, modified the dualist expression to the maxim, “Mens fervida in corpore lacertoso” which means “Fighting spirit in muscular body.” The current Olympic movement hearkens back to the Greek and Roman ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body, stressing the importance of physical health through elite performance. Since then, a healthy mind in a healthy body has been adopted by numerous athletic organizations as a representation of the Olympic ideal for athletes.

Recently, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) posited that the outcome goal of athletics should be to “develop healthy, capable and resilient young athletes, while attaining widespread, inclusive, sustainable and enjoyable participation and success for all levels of individual athletic achievement.” (Bergeron et al, 2015). The National Strength and Conditioning Position Statement on Long-term Athletic Development (LTAD), delineates athleticism within an LTAD framework as the “ability to repeatedly perform a range of movements with precision and confidence in a variety of environments, which require competent levels of motor skills, strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and endurance.” (Lloyd et al, p. 1491). Athleticism is not a short-term product but rather a long-term process and there exists a need to adopt an evidence-supported approach to LTAD. (Lloyd et al, p. 1491).  It is crucial that all stakeholders in youth development, from strength and conditioning coaches to personal trainers, teachers, parents, and medical professionals, adopt a systematic approach to long-term athletic development for youth of all ages, abilities, and aspirations.” (Invited Review, Part 1, p. 143)

Take Home Point

Broadening the definition of athlete to include everyone who has a body re-frames research and practical application of physical literacy on the inclusionary process of being an athlete, defining athleticism and measuring athletic qualities within the holistic long-term athletic development model for youth. (Smithson, 2019, Aspen Institute, 2016)


Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Sport for all play for life: a playbook to get every kid in the game. January 27, 2015. https://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/sport-all-play-life-playbook-get-every-kid-game/ Retrieved July 2, 2019.

Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, Chia, M., Cote, J., Emery, C., Faigenbaum, A., Hall, G., Kriemler, S., …Engebretsen, L.  International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development Br J Sports Med 2015;49:843–851.

Lloyd, RS, Oliver, JL, Faigenbaum, AD, Howard, R, De Ste Croix, MB, Williams, CA, Best, TM, Alvar, BA, Micheli, LJ, Thomas, DP, Hatfield, DL, Cronin, JB, and Myer, GD. Long-term athletic development—Part 1: A pathway for all youth. J Strength Cond Res 29: 1439–1450, 2015.

Lloyd RS, Cronin JB, Faigenbaum AD, Haff GG, Howard R, Kraemer WJ, et al. National strength and conditioning association position statement on long-term athletic development. J Strength Cond Res 30: 1491–1509, 2016.

Smithson, M. Nike Inc’s Mission Statement and Vision Statement (An Analysis). Panmore Institute http://panmore.com/nike-inc-vision-statement-mission-statement  Retrieved July 24, 2019.

Young, D. Mens sana in corpore sano? Body and mind in ancient Greece, The International Journey of the History of Sport, 22(1), 22-41, 2005.

About Rick Howard

Interested in sharing information on youth-centered fitness, youth sports, and youth coaching.

Posted on August 3, 2019, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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