When the modern Olympic Games were started in Athens in 1896, few people could have imagined that they would ever be held anywhere except in the Occident. The various sports on the Olympic roster and the whole concept of international athletic competition were virtually a Western monopoly, and most non-Westerners were content to let them remain so. The Occidentals' bizarre love of swatting, kicking, throwing or carrying around balls of varying sizes and shapes or for racing in circles, jumping over self-erected barriers or throwing a variety of objects at nothing in particular seemed one of the more mystifying and obviously less useful aspects of the inscrutable civilization of the West.
The various sports of the Olympic Games were indeed Western inventions, born of the Greek belief that the development of man's body went hand in hand with the perfection of his mind and spirit, fostered by the Britons' less articulate love of the outdoor life and physical competition and brought to new flower by the upsurge of organized sports in the 19th century West. The very concept of international athletic competition, too, was an outgrowth of the peculiar Western society of nations. The specialized products of a distinctive culture, these sports seemed less capable of crossing cultural lines than the more utilitarian aspects of modern Western civilization, such as gunboats and spinning machines. The people of the East lacked the Greek attitude toward the cultivation of the body. Some shared with the Chinese mandarins their contempt for physical exertion as the sad lot of the poor and the ignorant. Unnecessary physical effort, especially by men of education and breeding, seemed to them an unbecoming frivolity, if not sheer madness.
Despite this infertile soil, the sports of the West and the concept of international competition have swept the world since 1896, not infrequently outpacing both the spinning machine and the gunboat. Now a mere 68 years after their inception, the Olympic Games are for the first time moving out of the Western world, to Tokyo at the farthest corner of the vast Asian continent. Moreover, these first non-Western Olympics have a special meaning for hundreds of millions of people in Asia.
One naturally wonders how this could be so. Why have this alien concept and these alien sports taken such firm root in the Orient? Part of the answer probably lies in the long tradition of sport in the Orient. It is true that Asia lacked the exact Greek concept of athletic competition, but that does not mean that it did not have its own old traditions which, for all their distinctiveness, paralleled the Western sporting tradition and thus served as a firm underpinning for the sudden upsurge in the Orient of the Western sport forms.
December 23, 1963
Eastern philosophizing about physical exercise differed from that of the Greeks, but behind them both probably lay a common instinct for sports, which is their true origin. In part, this instinct seems to derive from man's addiction to the hunting and fighting life. Many sports in both the Occident and the Orient are merely the nonutilitarian and somewhat stylized continuation of the closely related arts of war and the chase.
The Buddhist prohibition against the taking of any form of life has inhibited hunting in many Asian countries. Nonetheless, falconry has at various times been a princely sport all the way from the Middle East to Japan. So also has big-game hunting in locales where game was available, the economy could support such frivolities and there was a ruling class of military men. The tiger-hunting princes of India and the wild-boar-hunting feudal warriors of medieval Japan are notable examples.
The martial arts have been even more pervasive. At much the same time as the original Olympic Games, the ancient Chinese engaged in fencing, archery, equestrian arts, wrestling, swimming and weight-throwing competitions. The equestrian and wrestling contests of the Mongols are still famous. Thai boxing, in which the kick is as highly regarded as the punch, has its obvious value as an art of self-defense.
Polo, too, may well have grown out of the martial arts. Although the modern sport was developed by the British, something like Polo was popular at the T'ang court of China between the seventh and ninth centuries, leaving behind it a delicate trail of pottery figures of plump court beauties mounted on magnificent steeds and gaily swinging their polo mallets. One wonders what kind of game they played and just what a contemporary European might have thought of this type of feminine athletic prowess.
Some of the Japanese martial arts have become well known in the West in recent years. Kendo, or Japanese sword fighting, in which a two-handed bamboo sword and a handsome helmet and body armor are used, was for a while under a cloud in postwar Japan for having been too closely associated with prewar militarism, but it is once again in favor and is drawing an increasing number of Western devotees. Even the feudal equestrian skills with the bow or lance have survived as sport in Japan today, and archery on two legs is very much alive.
The most popular of the Japanese martial arts, however, is judo. It and its sister skills of karate and aikido are related to the older, less differentiated art of jujutsu (usually pronounced and spelled jujitsu). Judo specializes in throwing and mat techniques; karate in hand blows and kicking; aikido in locks and attacking of vital points. Jujutsu techniques have won recognition from police departments and commando units all over the world as the most utilitarian of the manly arts of self-defense. And judo will emerge at the 1964 Olympics as one of the few Oriental sports to win a place on the roster. It certainly deserves this distinction because of the international popularity it has already won. The Japanese are naturally pleased by the global enthusiasm for judo, but not one of its by-products, the winning of the world judo championship in 1961 by a massive Dutchman named Geesink.
Another primitive source of sport, common to both the East and West, is what might be called folk activities, that is, village or group diversions. Two examples are the tug-of-war held between village groups and the large intercommunity canoe race popular in some parts of South Asia. Sepak raga (sometimes called takraw or sipa), a type of kick ball popular in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaya, is being sponsored as an international sport by its devotees. In this game a rattan ball is kept aloft by feet, head and shoulders and passed either around a circle or across a net. Bullfighting, in which bull is pitted against bull, is popular in rural areas in Thailand and Japan, and cockfights are common throughout the Philippines. Kite flying, which is engaged in by adults as well as children, is popular throughout the Far East.
Many of these folk activities have, or at one time had, religious overtones, being associated with various types of religious festivals. An example of this in Japan is the boisterous annual outing of the local Shinto divinity, who is carried around in a small portable shrine mounted on a Crosshatch of poles, borne by the young men of the community. The shrine-bearers are well lubricated by ample portions of sake, and in the old days, if the ends of carrying poles somehow stove in the gate of an unpopular resident, who could object, since the deity being taken for the outing was directing the course he took?
The star sport that has emerged from community religious festivities is sumo, or Japanese wrestling. Originally a contest between local stalwarts at shrine festivals, it developed three centuries ago into a well-organized professional sport in which human behemoths sought to toss their adversaries to the ground or out of the ring. The current crop of sumo stars, though not surpassing 6 feet 2 inches in height, run in weight from 200 to 323 pounds. A somewhat fossilized traditional sport until a few years ago, sumo took a new lease on life with the advent of television, for here was a sport simple enough for the camera to follow but spectacular enough to interest the viewer. The names of sumo champions, known only to the initiates a few years back, are on every schoolboy's lips today, and even foreign visitors to Japan soon acquire a remarkable knowledge, not only of the sumo champions' names, but of their standings and particular skills. Perhaps one reason for sumo's rising popularity, wholly aside from its appeal as TV fare, is that it lends itself to the statistical analyses so dear to the hearts of Japanese as well as American sports fans. There are ranking lists, lifetime records of wrestler A against wrestler B, and the like.
The sources of Oriental sports are much like those of the West, and in some areas even the philosophy that went along with them had points of similarity. The Greek ideal was the perfection of the body as well as the mind and spirit. In the Far East the concept was that physical control over the body was a means to perfecting the spirit. Archery, for example, was not too different from the tea ceremony or the composing of poetry in that all three were primarily disciplines aimed at perfecting the unified man and not just one element of the Western triad of body, mind and spirit. In Japan the drawing of the bow and the taking of aim were both secondary to establishing control over the belly—that is, over the emotions. If this were done with success, who cared what happened to the arrow? In any case, it had little choice but to score a bull's-eye if the hand that guided it was controlled by a thoroughly mastered belly.
This particular philosophic bent has led Asian sports off into some curious directions that hold little promise from the point of view of the Olympic Games. Chinese boxing, however exciting the name, turns out in the flesh to be a cross between calisthenics and the dance. The "boxer," sometimes performing alone, goes through a series of grave postures. All this undoubtedly develops his grace and hopefully strengthens his control over his emotions, but it bears less resemblance to Western sports than does the Chinese theater, which contains a generous share of sword-wielding and balancing acts.
All Japanese sports carry a trailing aura of the distinctive Oriental philosophy of the cultivation of the spirit through control of the body. For example, devotees of the martial arts make a special point of holding vigorous practices on the hottest days of summer and the coldest days of winter. This attitude also may help account for the bowing and other rituals that surround judo and other Japanese sports. It also has contributed to judo's particular philosophy of letting the untrained destroy themselves through their own strength. Judo literally means "the way of gentleness," and one of its basic concepts is that through perfect self-control, which starts, of course, with spiritual self-control, the well-composed man can use the uncontrolled vigor of his opponent's attack as the force for his downfall. And actually this is the way it works. Perhaps one result of the emphasis on spiritual training in Japanese sports is the relatively advanced age of their champions. The strongest judo men are generally nearing their 30s, and kendo experts rarely reach the top before 35.
The Oriental philosophy of sports has produced a somewhat distinctive sporting personality. At least this is true of the adherents of the traditional sports in Japan. They are neither the diamond-in-the-rough athletes of America nor the tweed coat, flannel-pants sportsmen of England. The Japanese judo master tends to be a grave, refined-looking gentleman, suggesting a philosopher-poet more than a Greek discus thrower, let alone a Western wrestler. Some of the gravity and seriousness, if not the poetry and philosophy, seem to linger on even with Japanese enthusiasts of the Western sports.
The Orient thus has its own ample sporting traditions, but the major explanation of the vast popularity of Western sports throughout Asia today and thus the chief reasons why the Olympic Games are being held in Tokyo is that they are "modern." True, the spark of the idea came from ancient Greece, but modern sports and the modern Olympic Games are nonetheless basically phenomena of contemporary society. Their mass participation, intricate organization and vast geographic and transcultural scale were quite inconceivable before recent times. By comparison, the Greek Olympics were geographically narrow, culture-bound, pickup affairs, more akin to the attendant festivities at a statewide club gathering. And, significantly, in the more than two millennia between the time of the original Olympics and the 19th century, sports as we know them today did not exist anywhere in the world.
Modern sports are clearly the product of our modern society and have in turn helped to shape it. They are intimately connected with the development of the nation-state, in which the whole citizenry, not just a noble ruling elite, make up the state and, if possible, participate in its political as well as its athletic life. Modern sports have been an important part of the growth of our contemporary mass culture. They have been closely linked with the spread of universal education, forming the physical side of the curriculum and a major extracurricular activity.
The development of sports in modern times has also gone hand in hand with the development of technology and industrialization, in that the latter produced the affluence and leisure that made sports, particularly the highly organized ones, a much larger component of culture than they have ever been before. And probably science led to the worldwide emphasis on body-building for the sake of health and as a contribution to the full life. The result has been the growing acceptance throughout the world of the old Greek ideal of physical culture for its own sake and not just as a means of fostering the growth of the spirit, though the two concepts are not necessarily inconsistent and probably tend to merge in the minds of many Orientals.
Sports have also helped inculcate attitudes that are basic to the operation of modern society as it has moved from the old aristocratic forms of organization toward the new egalitarianism and democracy. On the sporting field all meet as equals. The man who calls the signals does so because of special skills, not because of birth. Teamwork cannot be subordinated to social distinctions. Opponents must be given an equal chance.
The international aspect of the Olympic Games is perhaps their most important modern feature. The ancient Greeks did not invite the Romans, much less the Persians, to participate in their games. And the idea of Englishmen holding games with Spaniards and Frenchmen in early modern times is fanciful enough, let alone the suggestion that medieval Europeans might have proposed to the retreating Moors or Mongols that they come back four years later for a soccer match. As Baron de Coubertin realized in 1892, international sports are an important part of the development of a modern international society of nations. The Olympic Games he started four years later were in a very real sense a precursor of the United Nations.
Some of the characteristics of modern sports have even greater significance for the Orient than for the Occident. Lacking even the sort of international society that premodern Europe possessed and much more deeply divided by geography, language and culture, the East stands in particular need of the unifying force of international sports. Perhaps sensing this need, the peoples of the East have shown an extraordinary enthusiasm for international meets. One expression of this has been the Asian Games, which have been held four times since the war.
In Asia, moreover, there are even greater cleavages of class and religious community to be overcome than in the West, and, in addition, there are concepts of saving face and other old attitudes that stand in the way of modernization. The very newness of the Western sports has made them particularly helpful in the process. Since they themselves are a break with tradition, those who participate in them find it easier to overcome traditional attitudes. The process bears out the validity of the ancient Chinese concept of learning by doing rather than by reasoning. Acting out equality on the playing field probably does more to make people feel equal than all the philosophizing about the virtues of equality. The growing number of women who participate in sports is a cause as well as a symbol of a spectacular break with traditional Asian views that women should remain behind the scenes.
The peoples of the Orient may not have thought this all out clearly, but without doubt they have intuitively grasped the importance of sports in modern society. After their early shocked disbelief at the Englishman's "madness," they began to perceive that this was an integral part of national strength, a necessary element in the new society that they must build if the ancient countries of the East were to survive the military and economic encroachments of the lands of the Occident and win equality with them.
Western sports were introduced to the Orient in a variety of ways. In colonial lands they crept in through imitation of the European rulers and through the school systems they built. The result has been, for example, an English cast of sports—cricket, Rugby and the like—in such former British colonies as India and Malaysia.
In Japan, where there never were colonial rulers, Western sports seeped in in greater variety and in a more haphazard fashion. An Etonian scholar, with lifeboats bought from a whaler visiting Japan, instructed Tokyo University students in crew. An American professor introduced ice skating in Hokkaido by attaching blades to geta, the Japanese wooden clogs. An English clergyman instructed the Japanese in the intricacies of field hockey. French military officers brought modern equestrian techniques when they came to train the new Japanese conscript army. An Austrian army major introduced skiing. A Japanese student in Germany brought back handball. Another student in France brought back fencing. Boxing, wrestling, basketball, cycling and gymnastics were introduced by Japanese students studying in the U.S. Tennis was one of the first Western sports to win wide popularity and developed an interesting variant, common to Japan, Korea and Taiwan, in which a very soft rubber ball is substituted for the regular one. The advantage of this game is that the ball cannot be hit far enough to be lost and almost never wears out. Baseball was introduced by American teachers, and in time inundated the land completely.
The connection between modern society and sport may not be convincing to the Occidental, but to most Orientals it is self-evident. Modern sports are an excellent measure of the whole historical process of modernization in Asia. If one were to assemble statistics on participation in modern sports, land by land and province by province throughout Asia, they would probably correlate very well with statistics on literacy, standards of living, industrialization and so on. It seems no mere accident that Japan, the first Asian country to host a modern Olympiad, was also the first to develop the other attributes of a modern society—literacy, industrialization and all the rest. Tokyo is no accidental choice for the first non-Western site for the Olympics.
To Westerners, national prowess in sports is something to be proud of for itself, like beautiful scenery, good cooking or outstanding symphony orchestras. In the Orient, distinction in sports is a symbol of progress in the modern world. Only when one realizes this can one understand what each point in the unofficial Olympic tabulation means to Oriental nations and what is the true significance of the Tokyo Olympics.