Sports have also helped inculcate attitudes that are basic to the operation of modern society as it has moved from the old aristocratic forms of organization toward the new egalitarianism and democracy. On the sporting field all meet as equals. The man who calls the signals does so because of special skills, not because of birth. Teamwork cannot be subordinated to social distinctions. Opponents must be given an equal chance.
The international aspect of the Olympic Games is perhaps their most important modern feature. The ancient Greeks did not invite the Romans, much less the Persians, to participate in their games. And the idea of Englishmen holding games with Spaniards and Frenchmen in early modern times is fanciful enough, let alone the suggestion that medieval Europeans might have proposed to the retreating Moors or Mongols that they come back four years later for a soccer match. As Baron de Coubertin realized in 1892, international sports are an important part of the development of a modern international society of nations. The Olympic Games he started four years later were in a very real sense a precursor of the United Nations.
Some of the characteristics of modern sports have even greater significance for the Orient than for the Occident. Lacking even the sort of international society that premodern Europe possessed and much more deeply divided by geography, language and culture, the East stands in particular need of the unifying force of international sports. Perhaps sensing this need, the peoples of the East have shown an extraordinary enthusiasm for international meets. One expression of this has been the Asian Games, which have been held four times since the war.
In Asia, moreover, there are even greater cleavages of class and religious community to be overcome than in the West, and, in addition, there are concepts of saving face and other old attitudes that stand in the way of modernization. The very newness of the Western sports has made them particularly helpful in the process. Since they themselves are a break with tradition, those who participate in them find it easier to overcome traditional attitudes. The process bears out the validity of the ancient Chinese concept of learning by doing rather than by reasoning. Acting out equality on the playing field probably does more to make people feel equal than all the philosophizing about the virtues of equality. The growing number of women who participate in sports is a cause as well as a symbol of a spectacular break with traditional Asian views that women should remain behind the scenes.
The peoples of the Orient may not have thought this all out clearly, but without doubt they have intuitively grasped the importance of sports in modern society. After their early shocked disbelief at the Englishman's "madness," they began to perceive that this was an integral part of national strength, a necessary element in the new society that they must build if the ancient countries of the East were to survive the military and economic encroachments of the lands of the Occident and win equality with them.
Western sports were introduced to the Orient in a variety of ways. In colonial lands they crept in through imitation of the European rulers and through the school systems they built. The result has been, for example, an English cast of sports—cricket, Rugby and the like—in such former British colonies as India and Malaysia.
In Japan, where there never were colonial rulers, Western sports seeped in in greater variety and in a more haphazard fashion. An Etonian scholar, with lifeboats bought from a whaler visiting Japan, instructed Tokyo University students in crew. An American professor introduced ice skating in Hokkaido by attaching blades to geta, the Japanese wooden clogs. An English clergyman instructed the Japanese in the intricacies of field hockey. French military officers brought modern equestrian techniques when they came to train the new Japanese conscript army. An Austrian army major introduced skiing. A Japanese student in Germany brought back handball. Another student in France brought back fencing. Boxing, wrestling, basketball, cycling and gymnastics were introduced by Japanese students studying in the U.S. Tennis was one of the first Western sports to win wide popularity and developed an interesting variant, common to Japan, Korea and Taiwan, in which a very soft rubber ball is substituted for the regular one. The advantage of this game is that the ball cannot be hit far enough to be lost and almost never wears out. Baseball was introduced by American teachers, and in time inundated the land completely.
The connection between modern society and sport may not be convincing to the Occidental, but to most Orientals it is self-evident. Modern sports are an excellent measure of the whole historical process of modernization in Asia. If one were to assemble statistics on participation in modern sports, land by land and province by province throughout Asia, they would probably correlate very well with statistics on literacy, standards of living, industrialization and so on. It seems no mere accident that Japan, the first Asian country to host a modern Olympiad, was also the first to develop the other attributes of a modern society—literacy, industrialization and all the rest. Tokyo is no accidental choice for the first non-Western site for the Olympics.
To Westerners, national prowess in sports is something to be proud of for itself, like beautiful scenery, good cooking or outstanding symphony orchestras. In the Orient, distinction in sports is a symbol of progress in the modern world. Only when one realizes this can one understand what each point in the unofficial Olympic tabulation means to Oriental nations and what is the true significance of the Tokyo Olympics.