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STRANGE BEDFELLOWS
William F. Buckley Jr.
September 25, 1972
Is there any way such disparate personalities could fit into an analysis of the recent cataclysmic transfers of sporting power-hockey from Canada to Russia, basketball from the U.S. to the Soviets, but chess from Them to Us? Only this noted conservative thinker could find it
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September 25, 1972

Strange Bedfellows

Is there any way such disparate personalities could fit into an analysis of the recent cataclysmic transfers of sporting power-hockey from Canada to Russia, basketball from the U.S. to the Soviets, but chess from Them to Us? Only this noted conservative thinker could find it

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The Soviet Union's greatest natural advantage, to be sure, derives from the institutionalization of fraud. It has so often been pointed out that Russian athletes are professionals that it is tiresome even to repeat the point. Incidentally, this cultural characteristic is worth noting, if only because its Olympic implications are also conclusive. Not only is it generally true that Communists do not tire of being the butt of criticism, it is also true that Westerners do tire of offering criticism. Thus you will not only not wear down the Soviet representatives of the Olympic committee by documenting the professional care and feeding of their competitors; you will simultaneously wear down the Americans who level the charges. This is a signal advantage, not only because it produces a salvific insensitivity as one learns to tune out criticism, but because by one's strategic indifference to it one discourages the critic. It is a commonplace in international affairs that the reason why it is joyous for foreigners to burn down, say, a USIS library is because America always reacts with horror and hurt. If you know ahead of time that to document that young Ivan, who approaches the basketball court as an amateur, has been training as a basketball player since he was 6� years old, and that during the entire period of his training his father, mother, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and bastard children have been given extra-socialist materialist consideration by the state, will arouse no more attention than the metronomic motion of a recording clerk's acknowledging the receipt of your brief—why, you tend to give up. And you say to yourself, in effect: well, the job at hand is for American amateurs—or, if you insist, demi-amateurs—to compete against Russian professionals. Well, let's see if we can't accomplish that. For years we did.

We are slipping now, and it is clearly not on account of a universal national flatulence. Athens eventually lost to Sparta, under the pressure of Spartan concentration and single-mindedness. We do not know what to do, assuming we elect to make glory at the Olympics a national enterprise. Nationalize the enterprise?

Moving away from the obvious, is it safe to generalize that free people will exert themselves more completely than enslaved people? That is the legend but perhaps it is also the myth. It is easily gainsaid by spot comparisons. The vaunted tenacity and nobility of the British people who stood by freedom during the awful early days of the Second World War are no more striking than the behavior of the inhabitants of Leningrad. Less so, I suppose it would be fair to say—even avoiding the polemically tempting observation that inhabitants of the Soviet Union are professionally trained in duress, while inhabitants of England are clearly amateurs. Freedom is the indispensable catalyst of a certain kind of greatness, and this is as indisputable as that any magnet tuned to search out literary genius in Soviet Russia would instantly hone in on Solzhenitsyn, without a quiver's distraction in the direction of the time-serving Lenin Prizees who coo and chuckle and swoon over the detritus of Nikolai Lenin as schoolboy.

But a whole people are variously moved. And even as the inhabitants of Leningrad clearly preferred death from starvation or disease, as hundreds of thousands proved they did in the most convincing way, to surrender to the Nazis, the representatives of the Soviet Union in basketball, and in hockey, and in chess, will clearly do their best for their homeland. Their homeland, using the cant phrase, is a peculiar combination of tropisms, some of them nationalistic and patristic, some of them egotistic. The fact of the matter is that the typical Soviet athletic competitor does not pause halfway through the 400-meter sprint to denounce the treatment of Josif Brodsky by Soviet authorities.

Once again the mind turns to the uses of national subsidies. One can see it now, in a future political platform.... We pledge to change the name to the Department of Health, Education, Welfare and Sport. Federal feeder farms for shotputters, discreet and not-so-discreet scholarships for ice skaters and pole vaulters. That is one direction, the other being a total reconstitution of the Olympic Games, which is unlikely in an age in which the projection of the graph shows that it is moving in a direction advantageous to the totalitarian communities. Though the collision of interests could cause the Games ultimately to come apart. America might find that adjustment to the ethic of Olympic victory requires a correlative adjustment of domestic values which we are not willing to tolerate, let alone subsidize.

Where, then, do we go next in inquiring into the recent convulsions? It is tempting to yield to the magnetic draw of political analogies. If Richard Nixon can go to Peking and adumbrate there the similarities between George Washington's revolution and Mao Tse-tung's, we have a volte-face at least the equivalent of the Soviet defeat of a Canadian hockey team, one would think. If the power-conscious Mr. Kissinger can endorse a SALT treaty which with lapidary relish relegates the United States lo inferior status as a strategic nuclear power, then it should not so much surprise us that a Hungarian, a Pole and a Cuban together outwitted and outnumbered—enjoying advantages cultivated and ontological—an Italian and a Puerto Rican at a critical moment in an athletic contest between Us and Them. Mr. Arthur Daley of The New York Times , who is renowned for his good manners, meditated a day or two later on the spectacular refusal of the United States team to accept the second-place silver medal. Very bad show by the conventional criteria. But, he found, under the galling circumstances, that their refusal was—O.K. I am reminded that Henry Kissinger, describing for the first time to the American press the terms of the SALT treaty, excused it on the grounds that such was the momentum of the Soviet lead, the United States was not left at the bargaining table in a position of doing better than it did. Mr. Kissinger also refused the silver medal, not because the United States didn't deserve it—as the second nuclear strategic power we clearly do. But because Mr. Kissinger, for reasons of tact, declined to fix the responsibility for our having slipped in four years from No. 1 to No. 2. The irony is that the culprits in this instance weren't anything like the equivalent of Soviet satellite judges. The White House proved more respectful of Congress than our Olympic team did of the satellite judges.

Christopher Dawson, the historian, remarked a dozen years ago on the movement of world revolution. It is, he said, toward the West, not away from it, and deep historical conclusions can be drawn from will-o'-the-wisps like Nikita Khrushchev's arriving at Geneva for the first postwar Summit Conference wearing a fedora. We are used to resentments. Twenty years ago they started, in France, to protest against the Coca-Colonization of their culture. In the turbulent '60s anything surprising could happen and most things did, but the one rock on which Gallic certitude was founded was that Charles de Gaulle would never lapse into Franglais, never mind what the former McCarthyite Richard Nixon was destined to say, in Peking, about our identification with the Long March or, in Moscow a few months later, about the bona fides of the Soviet leadership. The pull of Western ways was terribly obvious to Christopher Dawson, but the pull turns out to be rather more bilateral than unilateral. They say that the Soviet Union in programming the hockey team that upset Canada was wonderfully guileful—not at all in the traditional pose of blunderbuss Bolshevism. The 20-year-old Russian goalie (or so the story goes) in his initial exposures was all over the lot in clumsiness, as if Stepin Fetchit had been mistakenly conscripted to serve. At the real thing in Montreal, he turned out to be devastating, better by far than the Maginot Line. Aw shucks, he said, when confronted with the disparity of this with his earlier performances: the Americans watched me play a match the day before my wedding, and needless to say my mind was on other things.

Now that is pure Yankee—charming, jumping-frog disingenuousness. Meanwhile, only a few weeks earlier in Reykjavik ( Reykjavik!—I mean, it is too much!), Bobby Fischer was treating Borississimo Spassky the way old Iron Butt Molotov treated the Western powers over nearly a generation. No. No. No. No. No! The square was too square, the circle too round, the line too straight. Fischer did not lack the confidence our diplomats lacked (during those crucial years when the gold medals hung sloppily around our necks)—he made his demands and discovered (what others have less conspicuously discovered) that when one wishes to prevail against the Soviet Union, the best way to do it is to assert oneself. The movement of world revolution, like one of those playful hurricanes that do a twirl or two, gyrating back on their course in a lazy circle, is all over the place, and the students of gamesmanship are going to spend many hours, or in any case should, on what happened in Montreal, and in Reykjavik, and in Munich.

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