Thanks to vigorous promotion by the railroads and department stores, skiing proliferated. In January of 1931 the Boston and Maine, casting about for new business, ran the first ski special to Warner, N.H. The ultimate came a few years later when the Union Pacific spent $4 million to build a resort at Sun Valley, Idaho, at the end of its spur line from Ketchum. Macy's set the pattern for store promotion by installing a 57-foot-long borax slope and hiring Austrian salesmen to sell skis.
The attitude toward sport was changing. In 1934 the National Recreation Association published a study of the leisure time of 5,000 persons. The completed report noted a wide divergence between what the respondents wanted to do and what they actually did. What they did was mainly sedentary: they listened to the radio, went to the movies or read. But what they wanted to do was active: golf, swim or sail. Their desires were to come true after World War II, with increased leisure and income.
One brief statistic, on paid vacation weeks, tells much of the story behind the current boom in participant sport. In 1929 there were 17.5 million paid vacation weeks in the U.S.; in 1941, 30 million; in 1947, 48.5; and in 1961, 65 million. New developments in technology—from the automatic pinsetter to the fiber-glass hull—had their impact on sport. In 1958 retail sales of sporting goods passed the $2 billion mark. Signs of this are almost anywhere. A passenger flying north over the Mexican desert can tell when he has crossed into the U.S. by the swimming pools that begin to appear below.
Still, Americans are far from inhabiting an athletic Nirvana. The new leisure, the new sport, has its problems. Martha Wolfenstein, a sociologist at City College in New York, has discovered "fun morality," the new Puritanism. "Here," she writes, "fun, from having been suspect if not taboo, has tended to become obligatory. Instead of feeling guilty for having too much fun, one is inclined to feel ashamed if one does not have enough."
Akin to this is a compulsion to win, no matter what the game or its level of play. A common remark is, "So-and-so is a good golfer, but he doesn't take the game seriously." The competitive energy that many Americans give to business has carried over to sport. "How can you be proud of a losing team?" asked the late Jim Tatum. Another football coach, Woody Hayes of Ohio State, says, "Anyone who tells me, 'Don't worry that you lost, you played a good game anyway,' I just hate." More and more TV commercials portray, as typical Americans, successful athletes like Sam Snead and Warren Spahn and Norm Van Brocklin. Branch Rickey, who was too much of a Puritan to attend ball games on Sunday, defined his ideal player as one who "will break both your legs if you happen to be standing in his path to second base." American sport, imbued with the absolute need to win and a pervading commercialism (which doubtless stems from the business interests that have done so much to develop sport), has nothing comparable to the British maxim, "That's not cricket." Instead, many honor Leo Durocher's crack, "Nice guys finish last."
The failure of sport to foster the ideal of sportsmanship is paralleled by its failure to produce widespread physical fitness. Without asking, "Fitness for what?" various tests conducted over the years (e.g., those administered to incoming freshman at Yale and West Point) show a decline in the physical well-being of Americans. This seems paradoxical in view of the increase in participant sport, and it has caused even President Kennedy to blame our supposed flabbiness on "spectation." But Kennedy missed the point. This is the era of participation, but it is pushbutton participation tremendously softened by technology. Instead of cycling, Americans ride in autos—from sports cars to hot rods. Instead of canoeing or rowing, they use powerboats to cross the smallest of lakes. When they golf, they ride in carts. Hunting and fishing and camping have succumbed to the pushbutton. "Roughing it," a trade magazine recently announced with pride, "now means toting collapsible tables and chairs, gasoline stoves, Polaroid sunglasses and electric blankets to the sea, streams and lakes." Underlying all this is a general physical ease of life no other civilization has approached. America has, as David Riesman remarked of the new leisure, moved from the melting pot to the casserole dish.
And what of the future? Attendance at the major spectator sports appears to have reached its limit—which has prompted the assumption that the participant sports are taking over. However, the unavoidable fact of television makes it clearly evident that the watching trend is still up; more Americans are watching more sport more often than ever before. In 1940 few Americans living outside the handful of metropolitan centers had ever seen a big league baseball game. Even fewer had ever watched professional football. The U.S. Open, the Kentucky Derby and the World Series were newspaper stories or radio broadcasts. Almost no one, except for a very few of the most privileged sportswriters, saw all of them. Today a man living a dozen miles from nowhere needs only a television set and a high antenna to see more topflight sports events in one year than Grantland Rice ever did. Of course, the "more and more" are seeing more and more of less and less: the sustained boom in televised sport has caused an inevitable centralization of spectator events: big league baseball prospers, the minor leagues die; professional and major-college football is watched by millions, schools with inferior teams give up the game.
The heightened interest in watching has produced another paradox. Participating in sport has increased concomitantly with watching probably because watching via television does away with the exhausting and time-consuming effort of traveling to and from sporting venues. Just before he settles down to watch the game of the week, the American sport fan may have finished a round of golf. Just after it he may take his family off for a run across the lake in his boat.
But the American's interest in both "spectation" and participation, coupled with his new concern for physical fitness, means that sport in America today is being utilized more than ever before. It may be at its peak. But it seems more than likely that it is really only just beginning to grow.