Swimming records have been falling like apples from a tree; a dozen records were broken during the first six months of this year. In the whole area of track and field events, the records are being smashed until it has become foolhardy to predict that any man may fail in whatever he sets out to do. Bob Mathias has outperformed the immortal Jim Thorpe (p. 52). Parry O'Brien has bettered the 60-foot mark for new world records in the shot-put. In many track and field events, U.S. schoolboys are matching and beating what were world records of the older athletes not so many years ago.
Back in the 1920s New York City went wild in a ticker-tape welcome home for Gertrude Ederle, the American swimmer who had conquered the English Channel. But in the 1950s Florence Chadwick swam the Channel three times (swimming it in both directions and once clipping more than an hour from the Ederle record) and, moreover, swam the Catalina Channel off California, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Bosporus and?like Leander?the Hellespont both ways.
In London this summer Maureen Connolly, a California girl not yet 20, won the Wimbledon championship for the third time (Louise Brough forced Maureen to play her finest game) and advanced a step further toward her announced goal of equaling the record of a tennis immortal, Helen Wills. (Maureen's recent accident, in which she broke a bone in her right leg, will keep her out of the Women's National this month, but tennis fans are sure "Little Mo" will come back to win many another title.)
But the full story of sport's new golden age cannot be contained within the records and the statistics any more than the story of Romeo and Juliet can be told in Dr. Kinsey's graphs and tables. The new age is gloriously unpredictable, and throughout the world the athletes are testifying dramatically in support of the bedrock rule of sports: "A man who won't be beaten can't be beaten."
This summer in New Jersey a man named Ed Furgol?a man whose crippled left arm should prevent him from playing golf at all?played better golf than the best in all the world and won the National Open. In Massachusetts Mrs. Mildred (Babe Didrikson) Zaharias, who, by the rules, should have resigned herself to a life of semi-invalidism, won out over the field by a 12-stroke margin in the U.S. Women's Open. In this golden age Ben Hogan literally turned back from death's door to become the greatest all-round golfer since Bobby Jones. In New York, Rocky Marciano, no great boxer, and Ezzard Charles, no great puncher, boxed and punched so savagely that the match was agreed to be one of the most thrilling and furiously fought heavyweight matches of all time.
The Iron Curtain itself was forced to collaborate in a dramatic demonstration of what the human spirit could do. Russia and her satellites had sent a new breed of athlete out into the free world. He was a superbly trained, coldly efficient, intensely suspicious, completely humorless fellow. He worked full time at sports, although he competed as an amateur, and he swiftly built up a legend of invincibility. He won almost every event he entered, and in England his Hungarian image humbled the old country at its own treasured game of soccer. But in the world soccer championships at Bern, Switzerland the new kind of athlete was cut down to size and beaten by his opposite number from Free Germany in a staggering upset (score: Germany 3, Hungary 2) that drove the West German fans wild with excitement (one of them tried to buy the air out of the football), provoked antigovernment riots in Communist Budapest and magnificently reaffirmed the high potency of what baseball calls the old hustle and holler?the ingredients that cannot be built into an assembly-line athlete.
The spirit is everywhere in the world of sports. Even animals exhibited it in the new golden age. A cocker spaniel named Rise and Shine, in the face of agreement that cockers were passe, exhibited such confidence, such poise, such cool disdain for his rivals that he now rules the dog world as Westminster's Best in Show.
American schools, at all levels, place heavy emphasis on intramural sports as part of the student's education. This attitude would have horrified American educators of the 19th Century who insisted that the student came to learn, not to be "indulged." In Mediterranean countries, like Italy and France, the students must organize their own sports after school hours. Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries have sports programs in the schools and the countries behind the Iron and Bamboo Curtains are pushing sports for all they are worth. In China the new trend is particularly significant, for not very many years ago Chinese scholars wore their fingernails long in order to prove that they were above manual labor and violent games and completely preoccupied with the things of the mind. The Red regime in China gets no credit for starting the sports trend; American missionaries had done that long before Lenin.
As the 20th Century brought a new attitude toward sports in American schools it also saw the beginnings of industry-sponsored sports. Sports in industry grew slowly but steadily until World War II and then they boomed. Today 30,000 companies with 34 million employees spend $800 million to sponsor bowling, softball, basketball, golf, horseshoe pitching, baseball, lawn and table tennis, fishing and volley ball.
Taking it altogether, taking it from the standpoint of interest, of participation, of performance; taking it from the smashed records, the Herculean feats of the outsiders and the Sisyphean frustrations of the upset favorites; taking it from center field at the Polo Grounds in New York City and Wonderful Willie Mays, there is no other word for the age but golden.