Generally it was a very bad year for American athletic ideals. Our losers, who were numerous, rather than taking defeat gracefully, bellyached piteously. Our winners, who were much rarer, tended to be of the Fischer type. The most important one after Fischer was Mark Spitz, who already had the reputation of being the spoiled brat of swimming. At the Olympics he quarreled with his teammates, who said they would rather have beaten him than any foreigner, hot-dogged in victory and then went home, not to talk to boys clubs about what he owed to swimming, but to talk to business agents about converting his seven medals into half a million dollars worth of endorsements. Wilt Chamberlain was a winner, and nobody has ever associated him with mouthing the proper pieties of life. And lest we forget, Duane Thomas, a speechless rebel who has declined to play his game again, was the hero of the Super Bowl.
Billie Jean King was the only American woman to have much professional athletic success. We have some strong notions about ideal female winners, even though most great women athletes have been very hard of mind and body. Reporters used to ask Mildred (Babe) Zaharias about her favorite recipes. They continue to force teddy bears on gritty teen-age swimmers and are delighted to see lace on the underwear of tennis players. In general, we do our best to mold women athletes into femmes frivolous. Billie Jean has already badly compromised this image by publicly advocating abortion on the basis of personal experience. When she won the U.S. Open Championship at Forest Hills, she did not simper but gave a strong women's-rights speech, saying she was not going to defend her title again unless given a chance to earn as much money as the men.
Vince Matthews was an Olympic winner, but he was patently impossible; he scratched and chatted while The Star-Spangled Banner was played. Dave Wottle, who won the gold in the 800, was not bad, except for that damn hat. Here and there you could find a stray archer or wrestler who seemed to come up to specifications, but even in these low-prestige neighborhoods of the sporting world there were surprises. Dan Gable was the best American wrestler in the Olympics. At first it seemed he would be fine, being a well-set-up, short-haired white boy from Iowa. But at close view he was unsettling. He had a zealot's face, said he worked seven hours a day, 365 days a year, that his whole life had been devoted to wrestling; everything else was incidental. He was all grunt, strain and monomania.
Our idealized image of a sports hero comes from an era when notable, or at least noted, sporting feats were accomplished by members of the small affluent class. While such old-fashioned sportsmen are no longer prominent in games themselves, the old attitudes and traditions are still much admired by the class of men who tend to run things. Long after it had become evident that good athletes did not have to reflect those virtues and values, Big Sport institutions have continued to try to fit their star performers into the archaic traditions and to make others believe that they did indeed fit.
The ridiculousness of all of this should now be apparent. If we want to continue to admire athletic winners (other than ersatz institutional ones), we had better learn to admire the virtues of people like Fischer, Spitz, King and Gable. Sports having been opened to all classes and competition having become so international that it is possible to have true world championships, winners will very probably be increasingly temperamental and personally aggravating. They will tend to be single-minded fanatics and often physiological and psychological freaks. Their personalities will be lopsided. Few will be models of conventional good manners or deportment. As athletic geniuses, High Sport winners will be very different from the rest of us and will not give a fig for our fantasies.
THE BEST EVENT
Jim is a college track coach and tennis partner. He said one late summer morning, "I heard about a 9.7 sprinter nobody has signed. He is going to run in Winchester tonight at an all-comers. I'd like to take a look. You want to go along?"
The college where Jim coaches is small and not affluent. He cannot bid for the 9.4 studs or even the 9.7 ones with a reputation. When the burners have all been bought by the big institutions, Jim begins sifting through the remainders like a housewife at the final day of an August bargain sale. In addition to unknown 9.7s he looks for 9.9s who have performed on bad tracks and had little coaching, for 9.6s who pulled hamstrings in their junior year, have not run since and have been passed over by the big spenders as damaged goods.
"Maybe I could round up a few of the girls," I said. (Yes, another of my buddies is the coach of a girls track team.) "They haven't done any real work since the Nationals and the Olympic Trials, and they are complaining about being bored. They could go down just for the fun of it and it would give us something to do, be a good cover." (Track coaches without entries at a meet are like canoeists without paddles; they always feel conspicuous and foolish.)
What with visiting cousins, vacations and baby-sitting, there were only four girls available on short notice—a pentathlete, two half-milers and a 13-year-old high jumper. So we scooped them up and drove through the soft yellow evening of the Shenandoah Valley to Winchester, Va. The track was rough, the lights feeble, the mosquitoes formidable. The Winchester All-Comers turned out to be the best event, bar none, of the year.