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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.