I went back in the evening for another look. Sure enough, there it was, and the game was going full blast—except that there was now a padlock on the gate to the courtyard and a guard who was keeping an eye on things. While I stood and watched, several players arrived, identified themselves and were admitted. One of them started talking to me and made the mistake of inviting me in. He almost got me past the guard, but not quite. After a short palaver, he invited me to a game of three-cushion billiards in the billiard room of my hotel, offering to meet me there in five minutes. We both, of course, knew there was no billiard room in my hotel, but I played along and accepted with pleasure. Needless to say, I never saw him again.
Maybe sailing is in the same category as billiards—a sort of hangover sport from bourgeois times and hence one to be kept from prying foreign eyes. In any event, I never did get to photograph a sailing race, either. At the Leningrad Yacht Club the chairman offered me a motorboat, only to discover (just as the race was starting, of course) that the motor was not working. Wise by now, I told him that was too bad since I was leaving next morning for Kiev—and then appeared the next morning, eager as ever. The chairman rallied nicely, though—the motorboat, he told me, was still not repaired, but there was a sailboat available. Only—there was no wind....
Such were my experiences with the so-called fringe sports. I bear my various antagonists no grudge—I am still impressed by the fact that these sports existed at all and had as many participants as they did. But apart from these, of course, there was much more:
I still remember the strong, intense Caucasian faces of the Georgian spectators watching a wrestling tournament in Gori, Stalin's home town—fathers and sons happy with their favorite native sport, with not a woman in the whole arena. And the old-style troika—three white horses pulling a carriage—which caused a collective, sentimental sigh when the beautiful animals charged down the track at a Moscow fair. I recall the white-coated, scientific-looking judges and timekeepers who officiated at a swimming meet and lent it the air of a serious medical seminar. Unforgettable, too, is the fanatic determination of the Ukrainian gymnasts who did double and triple saltos and other incredible jumps and turns for hours while their coach assured me that they weren't really very good yet, just beginners who weren't taking things as seriously as they should. I couldn't help but think that the Soviets have as much right to be proud of their gymnastic gold medals from the Olympics as we have of ours in track and field. It is a big and important sport in the U.S.S.R.
I was shocked by the violence of a crowd of 100,000 in Moscow's Lenin Stadium who greeted a 10-minute delay in a soccer game (because of rain) with a storm of catcalls, whistles and boos that made Ebbets Field seem like a peaceful meadow by comparison. The Russians, it would seem, are not very reserved when they are in a crowd. I remember, too, a handful of spectators at an early-morning basketball tournament in Kiev who raised such a fuss about the score not being posted promptly enough that the game had to be halted and the score keeper replaced. I felt for a tennis official in Tbilisi who was mortified because he had seen me watching the semifinals of a doubles tournament in which the crowd turned against one of the players. With split-second timing, they would burst out into screams and boos at the instant between his throwing the ball into the air and trying to serve it across the net—he made three double faults in a row under this pressure.
"Not very British, I'm afraid," said the official apologetically (how strange it sounded in Tbilisi!). "We are just learning about tennis over here."
I was impressed by the endless amount of practicing I saw everywhere. I saw divers going into the water and back onto the boards and in again for hours on end; and when they finished diving they kept on training in some sort of exercise pit that Pat McCormick told them about in Melbourne. I saw children working at every sport, chess players all over the public parks playing a quick, sudden-death five-minute game that calls for extreme concentration. I met a physical culture superintendent in a Moscow factory who explained how factory exercises are planned and set up, and how they are changed every three weeks to avoid boredom (exercises do the most good two hours before the end of the working day, he told me, because that is when the workers are most tired). His whole job was the planning and supervising of exercises in this one factory, and he explained how he and his colleagues had succeeded in convincing the authorities that their salaries ought to be paid out of the labor-cost budget rather than from physical culture funds because the exercises increased output despite the time they consumed from the working day.
What does the Soviet citizen really think of all this activity? The question is not easy to answer in American terms; by our standards, the people seem withdrawn, concentrated, even grim at their games, often as much so as their top athletes in international contests. It seems disturbingly evident that nobody is having much fun, that everyone works as hard at his sport as at his job, that sport is, in fact, just another job to be done.
But by Russian standards this is undoubtedly only part of the picture. The girls rowing an eight-oared shell on the Moskva River work hard at it, certainly; but they glory in the achievement, too. The worker dutifully rising for his calisthenics does not necessarily jump for joy at the prospect of exercise; but, on reflection, he would probably admit that he felt better for it. Part of the answer is the fact that he probably rarely, if ever, does reflect on it—exercise is part of his life. Doctors, however, do—and doctors are emphatic in their statements (coupled with statistical proofs) that the exercises contribute greatly to the worker's physical and mental well-being.
Some people, to be sure, ignore the whole thing. One of my guides told me how he had solved the problem of the loudspeaker which every morning, directly underneath his window, gave out with the usual setting-up routine. He went and bought some American jazz records which he then played on his phonograph every day at the same time the loudspeaker went on. Loosened him up a bit, he explained, better than those silly gymnastics.