Two weeks ago, disturbed by a new wave of football scandals, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reflected on the moral crisis in American sport. If there is a crisis, it belongs strictly in the publicity-drenched world of commercialized athletics. This was spectacularly demonstrated to me last week when Dr. William Unsoeld, a mountain climber from Corvallis, Ore., and Dr. Thomas F. Hornbein became the first men ever to traverse Mt. Everest. Unsoeld is a Peace Corps leader in Nepal. He, like so many other Americans of character and courage—far outnumbering the few nationally known athletes who have involved themselves in dubious activities—is again proving the profound moral force of sports. Athletics, we have found in the Peace Corps, has become a highly effective U.S. export—and a good one by any standards.
I have seen this confirmed dozens of times in the past year. The men and women we have sent overseas have shown, in the best tradition of American sport, that we can help build personal character, national pride and international understanding. I am proud of these volunteers not only for the work they are doing, but because I believe that they represent and exemplify American athletics far better than a handful of delinquents who have been led astray by their zeal for fame and wealth.
In the motion picture, The Hustler, a young player challenges a recognized king of the poolroom—Minnesota Fats. It is apparent that the young man is the better player, and at first he wins consistently. But as the long hours wear away and one day fades into the next, fatigue and alcohol slow his game, and Minnesota Fats, imperturbable and steady, overtakes and beats the challenger. A cynical gambler explains to the bitter and uncomprehending youth—"sure you got talent, a lot of people have talent, what it takes is character."
While some people might doubt that any pool hustler, even Minnesota Fats, possesses moral attributes worthy of emulation, the gambler's comment could well stand as the motto for sport through the ages. In giving the highest honors of the city to the Olympic victors, the Greeks were not merely honoring strength or swiftness. They were paying homage to the dedication, the toil and determined training, the joy in competition which symbolized their highest ideals of man's character.
When we forget this, when we exalt talent and are indifferent to character, then sport is nothing more than a parlor game, an especially clever card trick. That is why the unethical actions of a few can be so disheartening. They cast a shadow over all those who share a true love for sports.
But these few do not represent American sports or those who play them. I know they do not. For in the Peace Corps I have seen hundreds of our athletes break through into an entirely new dimension of athletic and human achievement. They are revealing, on an unprecedented scale, the value of sports as a tool in building that world of independent, friendly nations that is the major goal of America's foreign policy.
From Venezuela and the Ivory Coast to Iran and Thailand, volunteers are teaching the universal language of sports. Some are Olympic athletes. Others come from high school and college fields. All share a dedication and idealism that is far removed from the commercialism and profiteering of which SPORTS ILLUSTRATED speaks. They serve virtually without pay, often under difficult and primitive living conditions. They often lack equipment and facilities. (One of our basketball coaches in Tunisia saw high winds blow down his baskets. Undismayed, he proceeded to teach dribbling and passing. As a result he has a team of excellent court players who have never had a chance to shoot.)
A president of an African country writes the Peace Corps: "By teaching sports you will break down tribal and regional loyalties and help to build a sense of national pride which is essential to our future." In Ghana, Michael Shea, a Peace Corps coach, was carried off the field on the shoulders of his victorious team, one of the few white men carried triumphantly by Negroes anywhere in the world recently. At the African Friendship Games in Dakar, competing teams from three countries were coached by U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Next year seven countries will have Peace Corps coaches. In Indonesia, Peace Corps volunteers (SI, Dec. 10) soon will be training the athletes who will compete in the huge stadium built at enormous expense by the Soviet Union. In Venezuela, Will Prior, formerly a catcher with the San Francisco Giants' chain, has helped build a recreation camp out of the wilderness, pouring foundations for tents, collecting old crates for tables. In this camp boys from teeming Caracas get their first taste of organized recreation. "You pick up a ball," says Prior, "and, bam! 10 kids around you. They've never had a chance to do anything like this. We are training young leaders."
In Thailand an American Peace Corps athlete fought a draw, in a benefit match, against a Thai boxer. He was the first Westerner ever to escape defeat in a sport which allows kicking, kneeing and elbowing in addition to the more conventional technique of punching. The Bangkok newspapers reported that "The American pioneer in Thai boxing won the hearts of the crowd by his realistic war dance [an elaborate prefight ritual designed to conjure up the support of the spirits] and his neat way of handling his opponents." And in a few minutes, in a distant arena, that young American did as much for his country as all the highly paid stars who ever played.
And the same story, in less spectacular ways, is being repeated daily throughout the world. When Joe Mullins went to Isfahan, Iran as a track coach, the school to which he was assigned had never won a trophy. Today it holds five individual trophies and the city championship. Joe has been given an award as the best coach of Isfahan, and the Peace Corps has received a request that he be made track coach for the entire town. And on the little West Indies island of St. Lucia, volunteer Carlos Naranjo formed the first island basketball league. He is the top scorer on the brand-new St. Lucia all-island team.
These are stories of individual accomplishment. And they multiply daily. They help to demonstrate the inner significance of sports which we in the United States are in danger of forgetting. In the international arena, as well as among individuals, sport is the great democrat. "We cannot compete with you in steel mills or in airplanes," the leader of an African state said to me, "but we can hope to produce some athletes as good as the best of yours. So please send us coaches." Nor is it any accident that the Soviets have placed enormous emphasis on Olympic teams, or that Cuba sent a large delegation to the Pan American Games. They realize, as do we, that sport is vital in building national pride and spirit. Through it the smallest and weakest of nations can compete with the great powers, and through the exploits of their athletes achieve a sense of dignity and achievement otherwise denied. By helping to build up athletics we are helping to build nations; to create, on a national scale, that inner strength and confidence which will permit young and developing nations to maintain their freedom.
Praise from Phitsanulok
The value of athletics as a catalyst for community pride can be seen almost daily in the role of the Peace Corps. In India a young volunteer stimulated one of the first successful fund-raising campaigns in the history of the local community. His purpose? To rehabilitate a swimming pool which will be used to develop a local team. In Thailand the Peace Corps organized a softball and basketball tournament in order to raise money from local citizens for a Phitsanulok province physical education foundation. The achievement, the governor of Phitsanulok wrote to the American Ambassador, "has been greatly admired by the Phitsanulok people and me...for it is helpful in fostering good relations between the Thai and American people, as well as in improving physical education."
Sports and the teaching of sports also offer an unexampled method of creating understanding among people of different nations and cultures. When we compete in local soccer games, writes a volunteer from Pakistan, "everyone goes out of his way for us. We are often treated like heroes and are treated the same as their own players."
Unlike many academic subjects, sports lack ideological and propaganda content. They are least vulnerable to charges of "neocolonialism" and "cultural imperialism." On the playing field suspicions and misunderstandings quickly disappear. For sport is truly an international language, and through it we reach the minds and hearts of our fellow members of the world community.
On a different level our physical education instructors are attacking the urgent problems of public health and poor nutrition. Organized recreation is a principal instrument in assisting nations to develop the healthy bodies which are vital if their citizens are to carry forward the task of economic and social development. Modern nations cannot be built by the weak and underfed. President Kennedy has recognized this in our own country. And in lands where much has to be done quickly, through physical education we can make a basic contribution to a "felt need" of emerging nations.
Perhaps most important of all, organized athletics can help to build a sense of group effort and individual self-sacrifice which is a vital ingredient in nation-building. For, just as sport offers opportunities for individual self-expression, it teaches that the individual must often submerge his own desires and ambitions in the aspirations of the group.
All of these factors—national pride, community spirit, individual expression and individual sacrifice, a sound body and a sense of fair play—are important components of that elusive concept, human character. And just as we realize that the strength of our nation rests ultimately on the character of our citizens, others look to athletics as an important source of those qualities which will strengthen and develop their own lands. By giving young Americans a chance to help in their effort, on the village and local level as well as the national, through cooperation and teaching as well as through competition, we are opening a vast new dimension for the moral values which lie behind our own devotion to athletics.
Our athletes are not only helping others, they are reaffirming for themselves the moral content of sports. And when they return, they will bring with them an experience and influence which cannot help but elevate our own approach to sport.
It is on the playing fields of Africa and Asia and Latin America that, in some measure, the battle for a free and peaceful community of nations will be won. The moral force and dedication of our overseas volunteers represent qualities shared by the great majority of American athletes—qualities which will be with us long after today's unhappy scandals have faded from memory.