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The Olympic Games programme consists of 35 sports, 30 disciplines and 408 events. For example, wrestling is a Summer Olympic sport, comprising two disciplines: Greco-Roman and Freestyle. It is further broken down into fourteen events for men and four events for women, each representing a different weight class. The Summer Olympics programme includes 26 sports, while the Winter Olympics programme features 15 sports. Athletics, swimming, fencing, and artistic gymnastics are the only summer sports that have never been absent from the Olympic programme. Cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, Nordic combined, ski jumping, and speed skating have been featured at every Winter Olympics programme since its inception in 1924. Current Olympic sports, like badminton, basketball, and volleyball, first appeared on the programme as demonstration sports, and were later promoted to full Olympic sports. Some sports that were featured in earlier Games were later dropped from the programme.

Olympic sports are governed by international sports federations (IFs) recognised by the IOC as the global supervisors of those sports. There are 35 federations represented at the IOC. There are sports recognised by the IOC that are not included on the Olympic program. These sports are not considered Olympic sports, but they can be promoted to this status during a programme revision that occurs in the first IOC session following a celebration of the Olympic Games. During such revisions, sports can be excluded or included in the programme on the basis of a two-thirds majority vote of the members of the IOC. There are recognised sports that have never been on an Olympic programme in any capacity, including chess and surfing.

In October and November 2004, the IOC established an Olympic Programme Commission, which was tasked with reviewing the sports on the Olympic programme and all non-Olympic recognised sports. The goal was to apply a systematic approach to establishing the Olympic programme for each celebration of the Games. The commission formulated seven criteria to judge whether a sport should be included on the Olympic programme. These criteria are history and tradition of the sport, universality, popularity of the sport, image, athletes' health, development of the International Federation that governs the sport, and costs of holding the sport. From this study five recognised sports emerged as candidates for inclusion at the 2012 Summer Olympics: golf, karate, rugby sevens, roller sports and squash.  These sports were reviewed by the IOC Executive Board and then referred to the General Session in Singapore in July 2005. Of the five sports recommended for inclusion only two were selected as finalists: karate and squash. Neither sport attained the required two-thirds vote and consequently they were not promoted to the Olympic programme. In October 2009 the IOC voted to instate golf and rugby sevens as Olympic sports for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

The 114th IOC Session, in 2002, limited the Summer Games programme to a maximum of 28 sports, 301 events, and 10,500 athletes.  Three years later, at the 117th IOC Session, the first major programme revision was performed, which resulted in the exclusion of baseball and softball from the official programme of the 2012 London Games. Since there was no agreement in the promotion of two other sports, the 2012 programme featured just 26 sports. The 2016 and 2020 Games will return to the maximum of 28 sports given the addition of rugby and golf.

Amateurism and professionalism
The ethos of the aristocracy as exemplified in the English public school greatly influenced Pierre de Coubertin. The public schools subscribed to the belief that sport formed an important part of education, an attitude summed up in the saying mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body. In this ethos, a gentleman was one who became an all-rounder, not the best at one specific thing. There was also a prevailing concept of fairness, in which practising or training was considered tantamount to cheating. Those who practised a sport professionally were considered to have an unfair advantage over those who practised it merely as a hobby.

The exclusion of professionals caused several controversies throughout the history of the modern Olympics. The 1912 Olympic pentathlon and decathlon champion Jim Thorpe was stripped of his medals when it was discovered that he had played semi-professional baseball before the Olympics. His medals were posthumously restored by the IOC in 1983 on compassionate grounds. Swiss and Austrian skiers boycotted the 1936 Winter Olympics in support of their skiing teachers, who were not allowed to compete because they earned money with their sport and were thus considered professionals.

As class structure evolved through the 20th century, the definition of the amateur athlete as an aristocratic gentleman became outdated. The advent of the state-sponsored "full-time amateur athlete" of the Eastern Bloc countries further eroded the ideology of the pure amateur, as it put the self-financed amateurs of the Western countries at a disadvantage. Beginning in the 1970s, amateurism requirements were gradually phased out of the Olympic Charter. After the 1988 Games, the IOC decided to make all professional athletes eligible for the Olympics, subject to the approval of the IFs.

Team Canada
Near the end of the 1960s, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA) felt their amateur players could no longer be competitive against the Soviet team's full-time athletes and the other constantly improving European teams. They pushed for the ability to use players from professional leagues but met opposition from the IIHF and IOC. At the IIHF Congress in 1969, the IIHF decided to allow Canada to use nine non-NHL professional hockey players at the 1970 World Championships in Montreal and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. The decision was reversed in January 1970 after Brundage said that ice hockey's status as an Olympic sport would be in jeopardy if the change was made. In response, Canada withdrew from international ice hockey competition and officials stated that they would not return until "open competition" was instituted. Günther Sabetzki became president of the IIHF in 1975 and helped to resolve the dispute with the CAHA. In 1976, the IIHF agreed to allow "open competition" between all players in the World Championships. However, NHL players were still not allowed to play in the Olympics until 1988, because of the IOC's amateur-only policy.

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