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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 strange athletic inversions of the past fortnight raise questions about the stability of the universe beyond even the authority of Avery Brundage to resolve, though he is the catalyst of at least one of the great discontinuities, Russia over America in basketball. He had little to do with the second, Russia's successful challenge to Canadian hegemony in hockey, though his agents tried to abort the contest on the grounds that pitting Russian amateurs against Canadian professionals caused a fungible situation: now the amateurs would be thought professionals, and likewise their colleagues in other athletic disciplines. But he found himself arguing, in effect, the virginity of Zsa Zsa Gabor, which is always the chivalrous thing to do but does not any longer engage the public attention. So the show went on. Concerning the third, he had no role at all. What Bobby Fischer did to Boris Spassky was not exactly an athletic event—the rules were not laid down by an Olympic committee—but it is clearly a defeat the Soviet Union consoles itself over only by reminding itself that it is unlikely that the United States will make Bobby Fischer the head of our SALT II delegation.

One of the questions raised, of course, is: Is there a natural affinity for any single sport by any single nation, or is distinction purely a matter of tradition? Some of the answers come easily. Obviously where there is a lot of snow and ice, there will be a lot of the sports that require snow and ice. As I say, that one is easy.

But moving over, for instance, to basketball, what are the natural conditions auspicious to playing that sport? One thinks only of physical stature. But that, really, is unsatisfactory, inasmuch as there are at least enough very tall men to fill a nation's basketball teams in almost any medium-sized country, so it is not even worth inquiring into the relative median height of the American compared to the median height of the Russian; it is largely irrelevant to an inquiry into natural prowess.

One can talk knowingly about a "basketball culture," but not really surefootedly. One engages in sociological gamesmanship, a sport that has its own gold-medal winners, but the rules are inscrutable and the talk endless and pointless.

And then chess. We are now encouraged to call it a sport, and one of the reasons why is that it apparently requires a keen physical condition to play championship chess. Boris Spassky, it is said, does push-ups and lifts weights as diligently as if he were headed for the gymnasium rather than the chessboard. There are even those who say that the defeat of Spassky by Fischer was substantially a physical defeat of an older man by a younger man. I do not trust the constitution of that argument, and certainly not its implications, and will not be seduced by it into betting on the younger against the older computer. The morphology of championship chess is inscrutable, something that contributes to the game's fascination and edges it surreptitiously away from sport in the direction of art.

Still, it remains a fact that chess is traditionally a Russian monopoly, franchised to the colonies in Eastern Europe, even as hockey "belongs" to Canada and basketball to the United States, and we are best off examining the triple convulsion by examining the most conspicuous explanations for it.

Obviously a nation covets that which another country preeminently has. Not everything, else you'd find Russia coveting American freedom, which jealousy has never been in prospect—except, I suppose, America's freedom to covet, which the Soviet Union long ago surpassed. There was great enthusiasm in the United States over the victories of Fischer and Mark Spitz, but the victories of the Soviet Union in hockey and basketball were celebrated in Russia, one gathers, by condemned prisoners dancing together with their executioners. Unseating the champion is a universally satisfying thing to do, and if the theatrical circumstances combine a controlled titan and a bumptious challenger (Spassky vs. Fischer), or better still a supercilious defender and a poor-boy challenger ( Canada vs. Russia), the satisfaction sweetens. It is in this sense obvious that a nation given to collective enterprise, which notoriously the U.S.S.R. is given to, spends more time plotting to occupy someone else's turf than to defending its own. So much for motivation.

To get out of the way another point, let us acknowledge that the jury of appeals under whose patronage the Russians took the gold medal away from the American basketball team was, to say the least, highly obliging to the Russians. The lawyer William Kunstler is forever talking about American justice being a juggernaut at the service of the Establishment, though to be sure he gives his thesis discreet leaves of absence for a week or so after American justice springs an Angela Davis or a Bobby Seale. But the quick and congested succession of decisions that resulted in giving the gold medal to the Russians is only explainable with reference to the ideas of transcendent justice, the labored explanation of which furnished the reputation of Professor Herbert Marcuse. I am clumsy at it, but it goes something like this. If an American player knocks down a Soviet player, it is a foul because it is against the rules. But if a Soviet player knocks down an American player, to invoke the rules is to invoke an extension of that entire mechanism of repression whose sole job it is to frustrate the emergence of proletarian reality. Concentrate hard and you too will understand.

Anyway, there were five judges, representing Hungary, Italy, Poland, Puerto Rico and Cuba. The vote in the controversial decision that gave Russia the medal was, it is said, three to two. As they would put it in the children's test, group together the two likely clusters of numbers: 1.... 47.... 2.... 48.... 3. Mr. Nixon is asking for another term in part in order to change finally the balance of power in the Supreme Court. The Olympic committee is not pledged to a similar reform.

So, then, they stole the basketball title, which is Russia's now as a result directly of the courtesy of the judges. But we must remember this, that hanky-pank aside, the teams were very nearly even at the end of the match, so that supremacy by the United States was substantively challenged. Most tight Olympic contests waged by individuals are won by the breadth of a split second, and that sliver confers upon a whole nation the sense of honest corporate achievement. It is different in some of the team sports when the score is very close. If you win a basketball game 50-30 (or a hockey game 7-3), you are the better team. If you win a basketball game 50-49, what you have is two evenly matched teams, one of which is lucky.

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