Gee but it was great not too long ago when you could count on the fact that the good old Yanks from the U.S.A., the Iowa farm boys and the Brooklyn cab drivers, would always turn up where trouble was and—wump, blap—chase off the outlaws, blow the bridge, bayonet the savages, bring the serum, untie Julie from the railroad track and even stop the train. One of the reasons we could do these things was because we ate apple pie, and another was because we listened to Kate Smith, and still another was the fact that we worked hard at sports. You remember that. We used to knock out the tattooed bad guys regularly, drive the fastest cars, slam the hardest serves, shoot the lowest scores and row the swiftest shells, all of it with such cinemascopic, overbearing, patriotic ease that it was pure pleasure for us to burp in semidelirium each Wednesday at Rotary lunch.
Well, unfortunately, something dreadful has happened. It is now 1965 and as we look in on our air-conditioned, split-leveled, charcoal-broiled, dart-boarded, three-car-garaged, two-seat-power-mowed, stereoed, do-the-frugged existence, we find a weird phenomenon. The rest of the world has a new game. It is called Beat America First, and just about everybody is doing it.
You don't believe it? Total up the year. Our Alpine ski racers lost to the Austrians and French, our ice hockey players lost to practically anyone who could lace up skates, our figure skaters lost to the French and Russians, our tennis players lost to the Australians, our golfers lost to Australians and a South African, our wrestlers lost to Iran, Bulgaria, Turkey, etc., our lightweight boxing champion lost to a Panamanian, and our heavyweight boxing champion lost us by changing his name to Muhammad Ali. But that was just what happened when we stood up. Sitting down, our automobile racers lost to a Scot, our oarsmen lost to the West Germans and our bridge players lost to the Italians. Even our horses had trouble. The best trotter in the world is our Speedy Scot, best, that is, until they race him in the Roosevelt International and he gallops instead of trots. And our best 3-year-old Thoroughbreds are Tom Rolfe and Dapper Dan, two who owe much of what they have to the foreign stallion that sired them, an Italian dandy named Ribot.
Fortunately, we can still run pretty fast—so long as we don't run the mile against a Frenchman or lots of other things against an Australian—and we can outswim most people, traits that will be handy when the invasion comes. But otherwise we are in real trouble. Not only is our prestige going down faster than the Titanic, but we are being coolly insulted as we remove all the sharp objects from our pockets and grope up the aisle toward the emergency exit. Foreign sports figures searching for the reasons for the U.S. decline come up with a lot of things that sound like lazy, fat, bored, undisciplined and inept.
July 25, 1965
Consider the Indianapolis 500 as a classic example, an event so American you expect to see Lady Bird waving the checkered flag. It has picnic baskets, brass bands, beer, caps worn backwards, and a tradition of folk heroes with good old American names like Howdy Wilcox, Wilbur Shaw and Sam Hanks. For 50 years a foreigner could hardly pay his way in, much less win. When Scotland's Jimmy Clark—a fellow from the road-racing set—first showed up two years ago, the men at The Brickyard only made jokes. The men at The Brickyard are men.
Clark's hair was too long, he talked funny and he walked funny. His little, low-slung car had a sissy name, Lotus, it was colored a British racing green—everyone knows green is unlucky at Indy—and his pit crew wore green coveralls. "Lotus," said A. J. Foyt, "Boy, ain't that a name that sounds positively fruity?" Parnelli Jones said, "You get more than one of them things and you call them Loti." And the mechanics in Gasoline Alley amused themselves by mimicking Clark's heel-and-toe stride and saying, "Hey. I'm one of those sporty car drivers come over to show you bums how."
Even this year, when Clark set a new track record two weeks before Memorial Day, Foyt promptly broke it and said into a loudspeaker, like a man, "Ah just wanted to bring the record back to the You-nited States."
But then came the race. As everyone knows, Clark won laughing at an average speed of 150.686 miles an hour—leading for 190 laps—and said, "I was really awfully surprised at how easy it all was."
Clark was not at all impressed with his victory in America's premier race. "Entirely too much mucking about," he said. "It would be ever so much better if we all could show up here, say, a day before the race, then get into our cars and simply go.
"The oldtime European racing atmosphere is so much different. More of a relaxed air about it, really. All this pressure here in America; that is why we often fly home between qualifying and the race, to keep our balance instead of tinkering for a month like the Americans do." He pointed at his fruity Lotus, which did have a Ford engine, and said, "Look at all that...stuff on the car [sponsor decals, tigers, spark plugs]. We don't allow that sort of thing in Grand Prix racing."
The end of our domination began in 1961, when Indianapolis oldtimers were still listening to the music of the Offenhauser engine. Australia's Designer-Racer Jack Brabham appeared in a Cooper-Climax with the engine mounted—big joke—in the back of the car. It was too low and too long, it seemed to Americans, but it went 145 miles an hour. It started a design revolution in America—a few years too late. Clark's designer, British Engineer Colin Chapman, brought the new shape to its present state with his Lotus: low (2 feet 7 inches), long (13 feet) and wide (60 inches), but the Americans still insist on building a beefier car than the British. In the final analysis, the difference at Indianapolis in 1965, since the Americans were also driving fairly similar "Loti," was the fact that Foyt and Jones were racers-come-lately to the design. The British had gone after the 500 without arousing any attention, except an occasional giggle in Gasoline Alley, and they achieved their goal with ridiculous ease.
We may bounce back in motor racing, but tennis is something else. The game is as American as Don Budge, but we have evidently resigned ourselves to keep losing as long as the Australians keep playing, and as long as the cups of our healthy, athletic youngsters runneth over with diversions of other kinds. Australia has dominated the sport for 10 years, to the point now that maybe Americans should think about concentrating on squash instead. The other day at Wimbledon there were 11 Australian finalists in the major events, and one American. In the four-man finals of the pro tennis tournament at Newport two weeks ago there were three Aussies and a Spaniard. One reason for this is that American tennis is still all but closed to Negro athletes. "Give me Willie Mays, aged 10, and I'll make him the greatest tennis player in the world," says American expert Bill Talbert. Another difficulty is that all over the country, and especially in the state of California, which produced most of our brilliant players—Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzalez, Bobby Riggs—there is now murderous competition from all sorts of professional sports that lure away the eager young athlete who might otherwise turn to tennis.
It is remarkably easy to assess America's program for junior tennis, the ranks from which the aces must come. "We have none," says Talbert. "At Wimbledon, Russia won both the boys and girls juniors. We did not even have a player entered—not one."
Meanwhile, the Australians are suffering from no such handicaps. If they are hurting from anything today, it is a superiority complex. Listen to former Australian Davis Cup player Jack Crawford: "Australians start tennis much younger than players in other countries. They are going to mass clinics and getting coaching at the age of 8. And, of course, we have a better climate than the rest of the world."
If that is not the explanation, then it may be that, as Bill Young, an Australian cyclist, confesses modestly, "Australians have a driving force which makes them per capita the greatest sporting nation in the world. If anyone does well, we want to do better. We are the killers of world sport."
Tennis has lost its lure for one group of America's youth, and boxing has lost the interest of another. Gone are the days when a poor boy dreamed of fighting his way out of whatever depressed area—as we call them now—he happened to be depressed in, and into the world's most famous garden, the one called Madison Square. Fifteen years ago the U.S. held seven of the eight major world championships, and dominated almost every division except the flyweight. Today we hold four, and can claim that many only because Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands count as ours.
When José Torres soundly thrashed Light Heavy Champion Willie Pastrano in New York not so long ago he insisted that his own Puerto Rican anthem be sung before he entered the ring, possibly because he did not want to be too closely associated with a bunch of losers.
Despite this, American boxing might yet be well off if a surplus of televised matches in the early '50s had not forced the small boxing clubs to close. Says Gilbert Benaim, France's top matchmaker, "Champion fighters don't come from Fifth Avenue; they come from the small towns. They have to develop in small-town fight clubs. In Europe we have grown up in boxing without television. That's what has saved us. American boxers who come to Europe now get beat. We have lost our respect for your fighters. The newspapers are no longer full of wonderful stories about great American fighters. When you read an American boxing story today, it is all about monkey business. America has hurt the whole sport."
In rowing, a sport in which for 36 years we could count on an eight-oared Olympic victory as surely as we could count on a PTA squabble, all the news is about some West Germans. To the recent Henley Regatta we sent the world's best crew, either Harvard or Vesper, and the world's second best crew, either Vesper or Harvard, and we got beat by the world's third best crew, Ratzeburg. Which seems to suggest that the world's best crew may be Ratzeburg. Not only did the Germans beat Vesper in the finals at Henley, they won again in a challenge race in Germany. More significant, it was the Germans who brought about basic changes in both stroke and equipment, not the Americans, who, as at Indy, may have spent too much time being positive that their good old way had to be the only way. The new style explains, in part, the superiority of Vesper and Harvard in the U.S., for they have both copied the Germans. The Americans promise to regain the top next year if they have to goose-step into their shell singing Vesper-Harvard √ºber Alles.
Sadly, no amount of style deviating or singing may ever help some of our more obscure—well-meaning, pleasant, dedicated people all, but obscure—athletes. Like Alpine ski racers, wrestlers and ice hockey players.
The wrestlers have it the worst because the rest of the world slyly changed the rules on us, instituting a "touch fall," which means that a man is pinned if his shoulder blades merely touch the canvas. Consequently, many Americans got pinned without realizing it. Nor can we handle the Greco-Roman style, which does not permit holds below the waist and is so unfamiliar to our athletes that they might as well stay home and learn to sell insurance. At the world championships this year we were nothing but well-flipped flops.
After winning the Olympic gold medal in 1960—no one knows how on earth we did—our hockey teams have settled into a niche reserved for nations that throw rocks and brandish spears and want to make war on airplanes. The reason, obviously, is that any good hockey player turns professional—who wants to catch a puck in the teeth for fun?—and at the same time the Czechs, Russians and Swedes move nonchalantly along in their government-subsidized programs. In this year's world championships, we lost to just about everybody.
Alpine skiing at least has a glimmer of hope, but it is a hope that has to keep nourishing itself on the notion that things which are bad can only get better. We are doing things, lots of things, but they don't seem to make much difference. Bob Beattie has become the full-time, paid national coach, and the U.S. Ski Association has rounded up $450,000 to bankroll a massive effort through the 1968 Winter Olympics. We still have Billy Kidd, Jimmy Heuga and Billy Marolt—good ones, not yet turned 22—and more coming. But last February, when the Austrians and French came over for the international team races in Vail, Colo., we were third by the width of several well-spaced Alps.
"The Americans are improving," says Austrian star Karl Schranz, "but they have no good mountains or downhill courses. They are good in slalom, which is merely a matter of technique," he says, giving us polite credit, and then he adds, "but the downhill requires experience and courage."
If Americans have grown soft, have lost some of their killer instinct, have become too prosperous, are restricted by rules, have been stubborn and have perhaps been sneaked up on in all of these energetic sports, you would think that they could at least sit at a table and win something—like bridge. After all, bridge is as American as Mike Vanderbilt, who invented it. We are bound to be the best. Wrong once more.
The Italians won the world championship again this year, the seventh time in a row. There are several reasons why we have been losing, and the best one may be that we are too democratic. In the past 12 years of world competition we have used 57 different players. They made the U.S. team by qualifying in trials. In the same period the Italians have used only eight players, led by a certified genius, Pietro Forquet. Constant experience with the same partners has given the Italians a big advantage.
John Gerber, the nonplaying captain of this year's U.S. team, points out that "the Italians also benefit from the use of three artificial bidding systems. We generally use only natural bidding. So while the Italians just have to learn our one system, our players must learn their three. Often we are too lazy to bother studying them."
Forquet himself believes there is more to it, however. "We don't give up until the end," he says. "And the bigger the difficulties and disadvantages, the more our competitive spirit is stimulated. Resistance is one of the best qualities of Italian players."
One splendid authority, an American, could not agree more. He is Bob Lehr, a lawyer and internationally acclaimed bridge player who lives in Naples.
"The Italians play with a tenacity and passion unknown to Anglo-Saxons," says Lehr. "The Americans keep thinking that, after all, bridge is only a game. The Italians play as if it were a question of life or death, so they concentrate more and they fight. In a tournament where hundreds of hands are played, they naturally have an edge."
Everyone seems to have an edge—in everything. Perhaps the true symptoms behind the erosion of our sporting supremacy are best summed up by old British heavyweight Tommy Farr. He was talking about U.S. boxing promoters, but he may have touched on our whole way of life when he said, "In America, more people are trying to push unsalable goods than anywhere else in the world."
The world apparently has wised up.
Mark McCormack, lawyer-manager for the world's best golfers, offers an insider's look (below) at the most surprising foreign surge.