The sporting continent of Australia during these Olympic Games will harbor more than the nine million dead-game sports of whom William Worden wrote last week in these pages. For the athletes who come to Melbourne from all the corners of the world will also bring with them some part of their own special world, the home country which has sent them there. And though they may compete in events familiar to all—track and field, rowing, field hockey and all the rest—there will be some part, in all of them, of the many and varied sports they practice at home—sports which the visitor may never even have heard of. For as varied as the people of the world are, so varied are their sporting pastimes.
In Colombia there's a popular native game called tejo, which is roughly comparable to horseshoe pitching in that a four-inch iron disk is thrown at a pit of sand. The resemblance ends right there, explosively, because hidden in the pit is a dynamite cap, and if the throw is good the cap goes off in a shower of sand. When the tejo players are out in force, the atmosphere is positively insurrectional.
Colombia won't be sending a tejo team to Melbourne this month. Pakistan's tent peggers will be staying home, too, and so will Gaelic footballers, who would rather be caught dead than be shoneen. Tent pegging is an ancient horseback sport which had its beginnings as a tactic of tribal warfare—lancers galloped into an enemy camp, uprooted the tent pegs and then proceeded to chop up their suffocating victims at leisure. To be shoneen is, loosely, to ape the British, and the Irish decided that the safest way to avoid this was to invent a game nobody else played.
The game in which almost everybody else on earth does ape the British is, of course, association football—soccer. It is virtually a world sport. Of the 74 nations competing in the Olympics, no fewer than 35 consider it their leading game, and the clean whack of a goal-bound kick rises from literally hundreds of thousands of playing fields from Central and South America, to Europe and the Middle East, through the U.S.S.R. to Red China and into Southeast Asia. South Africa is a hold-out; it's better there to be a scrum-battered Springbok, that is, a Rugby player on the nation's leading team.
Soccer began in 12th century England when villagers with as many as 500 on a side passed the afternoons by kicking a large ball from one end of town to the other. Today, in London alone there are 380 soccer fields, and the attendance last season at games played by teams of Great Britain's four major leagues was more than 34 million—more than twice as many as attended major league baseball games in the U.S. this year. Forty-one-year-old Stanley Matthews, who has a good head and a great pair of feet, is the idol of minor leaguers and schoolboys. The West German Soccer Association lists 1.7 million amateur players and, when their world champion professional team returned in triumph to Munich in 1954, the appreciative fans showered them with gifts worth about $15,000 per player. Fritz Walter, Germany's soccer hero, is also an author of some note, having published two runaway bestsellers on his tips on the game.
In many places soccer attendance makes a full house at Yankee Stadium look as sparse as Ladies' Day. One hundred and twenty thousand people hollered "Go, Fritz, go!" at Leipzig recently, and at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro more than 200,000 fans scream happily for Waltz Foot and Big Head, players whose vertically varied talents lend surprise to the Brazilian attack.
The behavior of such mobs is often unpredictable. In Maracana, for example, there is a moat around the field to separate the players and referees from the spectators; stabbings are commonplace, and police are forever finding weapons concealed in lunchboxes and umbrellas. In the U.S.S.R. enthusiasts are jailed regularly for "hooliganism," a charge which in this connection usually means that the offender smashed a beer bottle over the head of the comrade sitting in front of him; but in Ethiopia, out of deference to the emperor, soccer riots don't start until Haile Selassie has left the park.
In Czechoslovakia, however, soccer manners are almost ladylike. The crowds watch play with a Forest Hillian raptness and silence and, before the game starts, in apologetic token of the violence to come, the players present each other little bouquets of flowers. When another Italian team lost to Rome recently, crestfallen rooters found mocking notices pinned to their front doors: "Yellow and red family of Roma announces the death of dear Sister Lazio who died today after a painful game.... We offer condolences."
Naturally enough, soccer is a big game for the bettors. More than $200 million was wagered in Great Britain last year, and the soccer tote is a major source of Italy's national income. There is a lively player market; an Argentine from Newell's Old Boys gets a cut of the purchase price when he is sold to River Plate, and Swedish youngsters dream of the day when they can grow up and, like Gunnar Nordahl, draw the excited bidding of rich Italian promoters.
Another generally popular world-wide sport which has had little recognition in the U.S. is cycling. Normal activity comes to a virtual standstill during the 2,800-mile Tour de France. Schools close down, and 12 million fans line the roads as the grimy "gods of the wheel" crank their way around the countryside. On the highest level, the sport is professional; but in France everybody cycles, and on weekends the highways are jammed with pedalers, spare tires circled around their chests, holding sprints and mending broken chains. In some South American countries the children are organized for tricycle racing, and in Belgium recently 75,000 mourners filed past the body of Cycling Hero Stan Ockers as he lay in state.