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When the modern Olympic Games were started in Athens in 1896, few people could have imagined that they would ever be held anywhere except in the Occident. The various sports on the Olympic roster and the whole concept of international athletic competition were virtually a Western monopoly, and most non-Westerners were content to let them remain so. The Occidentals' bizarre love of swatting, kicking, throwing or carrying around balls of varying sizes and shapes or for racing in circles, jumping over self-erected barriers or throwing a variety of objects at nothing in particular seemed one of the more mystifying and obviously less useful aspects of the inscrutable civilization of the West.
The various sports of the Olympic Games were indeed Western inventions, born of the Greek belief that the development of man's body went hand in hand with the perfection of his mind and spirit, fostered by the Britons' less articulate love of the outdoor life and physical competition and brought to new flower by the upsurge of organized sports in the 19th century West. The very concept of international athletic competition, too, was an outgrowth of the peculiar Western society of nations. The specialized products of a distinctive culture, these sports seemed less capable of crossing cultural lines than the more utilitarian aspects of modern Western civilization, such as gunboats and spinning machines. The people of the East lacked the Greek attitude toward the cultivation of the body. Some shared with the Chinese mandarins their contempt for physical exertion as the sad lot of the poor and the ignorant. Unnecessary physical effort, especially by men of education and breeding, seemed to them an unbecoming frivolity, if not sheer madness.
Despite this infertile soil, the sports of the West and the concept of international competition have swept the world since 1896, not infrequently outpacing both the spinning machine and the gunboat. Now a mere 68 years after their inception, the Olympic Games are for the first time moving out of the Western world, to Tokyo at the farthest corner of the vast Asian continent. Moreover, these first non-Western Olympics have a special meaning for hundreds of millions of people in Asia.
One naturally wonders how this could be so. Why have this alien concept and these alien sports taken such firm root in the Orient? Part of the answer probably lies in the long tradition of sport in the Orient. It is true that Asia lacked the exact Greek concept of athletic competition, but that does not mean that it did not have its own old traditions which, for all their distinctiveness, paralleled the Western sporting tradition and thus served as a firm underpinning for the sudden upsurge in the Orient of the Western sport forms.
Eastern philosophizing about physical exercise differed from that of the Greeks, but behind them both probably lay a common instinct for sports, which is their true origin. In part, this instinct seems to derive from man's addiction to the hunting and fighting life. Many sports in both the Occident and the Orient are merely the nonutilitarian and somewhat stylized continuation of the closely related arts of war and the chase.
The Buddhist prohibition against the taking of any form of life has inhibited hunting in many Asian countries. Nonetheless, falconry has at various times been a princely sport all the way from the Middle East to Japan. So also has big-game hunting in locales where game was available, the economy could support such frivolities and there was a ruling class of military men. The tiger-hunting princes of India and the wild-boar-hunting feudal warriors of medieval Japan are notable examples.
The martial arts have been even more pervasive. At much the same time as the original Olympic Games, the ancient Chinese engaged in fencing, archery, equestrian arts, wrestling, swimming and weight-throwing competitions. The equestrian and wrestling contests of the Mongols are still famous. Thai boxing, in which the kick is as highly regarded as the punch, has its obvious value as an art of self-defense.
Polo, too, may well have grown out of the martial arts. Although the modern sport was developed by the British, something like Polo was popular at the T'ang court of China between the seventh and ninth centuries, leaving behind it a delicate trail of pottery figures of plump court beauties mounted on magnificent steeds and gaily swinging their polo mallets. One wonders what kind of game they played and just what a contemporary European might have thought of this type of feminine athletic prowess.
Some of the Japanese martial arts have become well known in the West in recent years. Kendo, or Japanese sword fighting, in which a two-handed bamboo sword and a handsome helmet and body armor are used, was for a while under a cloud in postwar Japan for having been too closely associated with prewar militarism, but it is once again in favor and is drawing an increasing number of Western devotees. Even the feudal equestrian skills with the bow or lance have survived as sport in Japan today, and archery on two legs is very much alive.
The most popular of the Japanese martial arts, however, is judo. It and its sister skills of karate and aikido are related to the older, less differentiated art of jujutsu (usually pronounced and spelled jujitsu). Judo specializes in throwing and mat techniques; karate in hand blows and kicking; aikido in locks and attacking of vital points. Jujutsu techniques have won recognition from police departments and commando units all over the world as the most utilitarian of the manly arts of self-defense. And judo will emerge at the 1964 Olympics as one of the few Oriental sports to win a place on the roster. It certainly deserves this distinction because of the international popularity it has already won. The Japanese are naturally pleased by the global enthusiasm for judo, but not one of its by-products, the winning of the world judo championship in 1961 by a massive Dutchman named Geesink.