This has been a thought-provoking year in what is still sometimes called the world of sport. For example, it has been demonstrated during recent months that the Stanley Cup is not the world championship of hockey but only a kind of provincial elimination tournament; that the national pastime can be disrupted in the same way and for the same reasons that the steel or rail industry can be; that brooding Russian geniuses are not necessarily the best chess players; that God did not order the world so as to guarantee that the fastest runners, strongest shotputters, most supple pole vaulters, shrewdest athletic coaches and trainers would be produced by American institutions of higher learning; that absurdity, hypocrisy, greed, chauvinism, xenophobia and violence exist in the world of Big Sport in about the same proportions that they do in the Big World. But before going any further, some distinctions can be made about sport.
Nowadays, it exists on at least three levels. There is first True Sport, the manifestation of man's seemingly innate urge to play. True Sport is organized for and often by participants and is essentially a private matter like eating or making love. High Sport is True Sport raised to the level of art by the talent, even genius, of its participants. It is public in the sense that all art is public (great music, painting, literature or sport is incomplete until that time when it is displayed, judged and acclaimed). Finally there is Big Sport in which elements of True and High Sport are present but are modified by other considerations, notably commerce and politics.
The surprising reversals and shattered illusions of sporting 1972 may have been only the consequences of a freakish season, comparable to one in which it snows in July. The makers and shakers of Big Sport, who have a considerable stake in business as usual, are suggesting that what we have seen is simply an extraordinary spell of unrelated accidents. However, the contrary is likely. There is abundant evidence that during the past 12 months Big Sport has been inundated by reality. Viewed from this perspective, it is possible to conceive that certain apparently disparate events are connected as, say, excessive rainfall and flood are connected. Consider these matters.
The Trials at which members of the U.S. Olympic women's track and field team were theoretically to be selected were held in Frederick, Md. last July. In consequence, for a week this country town was caught up in the maneuvering and bickering of the small but passionate group of men who coach and more or less own the modest clubs that the athletes represent. The girls themselves were generally docile, and did not take part in the arrangements because, said Olga Connolly, an older discus thrower who is nobody's possession, "Women are not supposed to have large enough brains to think for themselves." Despite the wheeling, dealing and bitching of the coaches about officials, facilities and schedules (all such activity being aimed at improving the chances of their entries for making The Team), there were some artistic performances. One of the best was turned in by a young, heretofore unknown runner who, according to the terms previously agreed upon, won herself a spot on The Team.
While a group of track buffs were talking about how unexpectedly well this girl had performed, a veteran of track infighting made the sour prediction that she never would run in Munich, at least not in the relay for which she had qualified. "Her coach is an outsider," he said. "He doesn't swing any weight on the selection committee and doesn't have any friends who do." He went on to point out that there were several other athletes who, though they had run less well, were coached by some big weight-swingers. All of which was dismissed in Frederick as an unseemly exhibition of cynicism, but it proved to be true in Munich. The girl's coach had shown her how to run very fast, but this was somewhat beside the point, since the objective was making The Team at whatever speed. A better coach would have gotten himself to Munich as a member of the official party, or as a media consultant, or if all else failed, by buying a ticket so as to protect his runner during the political skirmishing.
The point is that politics has nothing to do with justice, talent or deserved rewards but is concerned with the marshaling, display and use of power. Political maneuvering is in the background of any Big Sport event, whether it takes place in Frederick or Reykjavik. Though the Olympics are fine forums for front men to explain what a bad influence politics is on sport and to express their determination to keep politics out of sport, the Games by tradition and design are major events in international politics. Since the beginning of the modern Olympics, competition has been organized on the basis of national teams. An international relay team made up of a Frenchman, Albanian, Kenyan and American is unthinkable, as well as being in direct violation of the Olympic code. No athlete is allowed to compete in the Games without the sanction of his or her national Olympic committee. It is these same national agencies that bring the athletes to the Games site and supervise their behavior there. Since at least 1936, the Olympics have been used for political confrontations; they have been international politics carried on by a different means.
(At the Munich Games one of the first gold medal winners was a North Korean marksman who said that while shooting he kept in mind the parting advice of his premier, which was to imagine that he was shooting at the enemies of his country. The North Korean was hushed up, but in his way he was one of the few participants to acknowledge the actual Olympic code.)
Nations support their athletes and teams handsomely. Resources devoted to these athletic endeavors are thought to be a good investment in national prestige, for it is assumed (without much logic) within the family of nations that Olympic winners demonstrate that the country that produced them is superior to nations that produced losers.
The American position with regard to politics and sport generally has been ambivalent and unattractive. When we have won, we have crowed that the victories display the superiority of representative democracy, free enterprise and grants-in-aid over other ways of doing things. This behavior has done much to promote an Ugly American image and convince men and women the world over that one of the true pleasures available today is beating an American at some game. When we have lost, we have invariably whined that we were beaten because the other side injected politics into the contest and cheated by putting its system to work producing winning athletes.