by William Lyon Phelps
The whole world, with the exception of India, China, Siberia and a few other countries, has gone wild over athletics. Although new stadiums and amphitheatres are in process of construction everywhere, it is impossible to accommodate the crowds. Millions of people have apparently the money and the time to devote to these spectacular contests, and many more millions "listen in" on the radio. In England last June Wimbledon was not half large enough to hold the frantic crowd that wished to see the tennis matches; the same is true of France.At a recent wrestling contest in Austria, after all the seats were taken, the gates were broken down by the mob of spectators who wished to enter; about 150,000 people saw a prize fight in Chicago and it is significant of the times that the only vacant seats were the cheapest.
Every newspaper devotes an immense amount of space to sporting news; and all the leading daily journals employ a highly paid staff of ex perts on sports, who keep the public agog with excitement before every contest and who endeavour to satisfy its curiosity after the battle is over.
Now there are some pessimistic philosophers who look upon all this athletic fever as a sign of degeneration, as evidence of the coming eclipse of civilisation. They point out that during the decay of the Roman Empire there was a universal excitement over sports, and they draw the inference that European and American civilisation is headed toward disaster.
No one can read the future, although
innumerable fakers are paid for doing so. But it is at least possible that the
ever-growing interest in athletics, instead of being a sign of degeneration,
is in reality one more proof of the gradual domination of the world by
Anglo-Saxon language, customs and ideas.
Extreme interest in athletics, though it can-not be defended on strictly rational grounds, is not necessarily accompanied by a lack or loss of interest in intellectual matters. If one had to name the place and the time when civilisation reached its climax, one might well name Athens in the fifth century before Christ. If one compares Athenian public interest in the tragedies of Sophocles with New York public interest in musical comedy, the contrast is not flattering to American pride. Yet that intellectual fervour in Athens was accompanied by a tremendous interest in track athletics. Every Greek city was a separate state; their only bond of union was the track meet held every four years and called the Olympic Games, to which the flower of youth from every Greek town contributed; and the winner of each event-a simon-pure amateur, receiving as prize only a laurel wreath was a hero for at least four years.
From the strictly rational point of view it is impossible to defend or even to explain the universal ardour over athletics, but it is best to regard it as a fact, and then see what its causes are.
The majority of Anglo-Saxons have always had sporting blood, and the Latin races are now being infused with it. I well remember a train journey near Chicago during the darkest days of the World War. We were all awaiting the newspapers. Suddenly a newsboy entered and we bought eagerly. The man sitting next to me was a clergyman in Episcopal uniform. He looked not at the front part of the paper, but. turned feverishly to the sporting page, which he read carefully. When I called on the Very Reverend Dean of Rochester Cathedral, in England, Dean Hole, I was shown into a room con taining several thousand books. I glanced over these and all I saw dealt exclusively with sport. Many excellent men without sporting blood have protested against the domination of athletics. The famous English novelist, Wilkie Collins, published a novel, Man and Wife, which was a protest against the British love of sports, in which both athletes and the public were ridiculed. Why should thousands pay money to see two men run a race? What difference did it make to civilisation which man won?
Yet, although it is easy to overdo excitement about athletics, the growing interest in sport which has been so characteristic of France, Germany and Italy during the last ten years is a good thing for the youth of these countries and for their national and international temper.
Years ago, the space occupied in England and in America by fields devoted to various outdoor sports was in Germany and France used for public gardens, where people sat and drank liquor while listening to a band or watching some vaudeville. When I first travelled on the Continent, I found only one tennis court and that was at Baden-Baden. Today one finds everywhere in France and Germany tennis courts, golf links and football fields.
It is surely not a change for the worse that a German student who used to test his physical endurance by the number of quarts of beer he could drink at a sitting tests it today in tennis, rowing and football, and that the French students with silky beards, who used to strain their eyes looking at women, now, clean-shaven and alert, are looking at the tennis ball.
It is, of course, irrational to take an eager interest in a prize fight, but if you have sporting blood you cannot help it. My father was an orthodox Baptist minister. As I had never heard him mention prize fighting, I supposed he took no interest in it.
But the day after a famous battle, as I was reading aloud the newspaper to him, I simply read the headline, "Corbett Defeats Sullivan," and was about to pass on to something important when my father leaned forward and said earnestly, "Read it by rounds."