Football is a key ritual in the nation’s civic religion and the best and worst aspects of its impact on the country’s cultural landscape flow from this.
Perhaps American athletes should not be in Beijing. China is a hostile foreign power, credibly accused of genocide, and the country is clearly hosting the Beijing Olympics as part of an effort to bolster its respectability around the globe. At the Opening Ceremonies, fresh-faced teenagers flooded the floor, giving the impression that their nation is blossoming with innocent, youthful energy. It’s not.
The creepiest moment of the 2022 Olympics thus far has been the torch-lighting, featuring 20-year-old Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross-country skier of Uighur heritage. These are the moments when we remember how easily sport can become a shiny lipstick for despotic pigs. Crowds of Olympic spectators once performed the Hitler salute in fascist Berlin. “Mussolini’s Boys” were the much-admired face of fascist Italy in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The USSR raked in Olympic medals for decades, and the world let them do it, even though it was widely recognized that they were almost certainly juicing.
Perhaps our athletes should not be in Beijing, but there they are. Since the games have gone on, so we might as well relish the irony of China bending over backwards to showcase Western superiority. For more than two decades now, China has been striving to win glory at the Olympic Games, implementing state programs to train top athletes in sports that they hope will be less competitive. They’ve made strides. In the bigger athletic picture, the Chinese are barely panting around the bend. Western countries dominate the Olympics. The English-speaking world, in particular, has an unrivaled tradition of athletic excellence. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that we invented modern sport.
Topping the Podium
This truth becomes glaring when we consider medal counts in relation to population. Consider the five primary countries that make up the Anglosphere: Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Combined, we have a population of about 470 million, which is roughly 6% of the world’s population. China, with 1.4 billion, holds almost 18% of the world’s people. Nevertheless, at the Tokyo Summer Games, the Anglosphere collectively took home 268 medals, including 92 golds. China won 88 medals, 38 of which were gold. In context, that almost looks like a participation ribbon.
Perhaps it is not quite fair to compare one country to five, but consider them side by side. The United States beat China outright, while Britain, with less than 5% of China’s population, won two-thirds as many medals. Australia, with a paltry 25 million, pocketed more than half China’s total cache, and even tiny New Zealand (with just 5 million citizens) won almost a quarter as many medals as the Chinese. At the Winter Games, it is generally Canada’s turn to shine. With just 38 million people, they’ve ranked in the top 5 globally in every Winter Olympics since 1994. The last time around, they beat us, with 29 Olympic medals. China got 9.
Undoubtedly, other nations have their strengths. The tiny Nordic countries tend to be big-time contenders at the Winter Olympics. (I see you, Norway.) Jamaican sprinters inspire awe the world over. My kids and I have been dazzled by the Japanese ski jumpers and snowboarders in this Winter Games.
Taking a broader view, the Anglosphere still stands astride the world. Our glittering metal case is especially impressive considering that the Olympics, in the Anglosphere, are not really a national obsession. In the United States, they weren’t even the most important sporting event of this last weekend. That other athletic event, in truth, is more representative of the Anglo sporting tradition. Team sports are one of our great contributions to human civilization. We can run, swim, and snowboard with the best of them, but we really are superb at the sports-ball thing.
The Fields of Eton
The English (and their cultural descendants) did not actually invent team sports. We merely invented most of the ones that people like to play. There is historical evidence that team sports have popped up here and there in various places around the world. I myself have walked through ancient Mayan pitz stadia, glancing up at the forbidding stone hoops, and wondering what it would be like to play a sporting match, worrying about the possibility of being sacrificed to the gods at the end. There is evidence that the people of Myanmar played a caneball sport known as “chinlone” as early as the second century BC. It seems to have been cooperative, not competitive, with a basic objective of keeping a ball in the air.
Some Anglo sports have non-Anglo influences or precursors. Lacrosse, for instance, was inspired by Algonquian stickball, a game played by indigenous North American tribes. Stickball matches seem to have been big events, often lasting several days and involving hundreds of braves. Those traditions have effectively been lost, but modern lacrosse was invented in the mid-19th century by William George Beers (a Canadian) to honor North American natives.
Athletic competition in the ancient and medieval worlds tended to honor individual excellence. Ancient Greek Olympians strove to run faster and jump higher than their comrades. Chariot racing was popular with both Greeks and Romans, with other forms of racing being enjoyed across the globe. Gymnastics have been appreciated in many cultures, from the bull-leaping Minoans to the politically subversive “Turners” of nineteenth-century Germany. Unsurprisingly, many sporting events have involved combat, which can take myriad forms: gladiatorial contests, medieval jousting, bullfights, boxing, Sumo wrestling.
Throwing and shooting are another common point of emphasis, and archery contests took place across Europe and Asia throughout the Middle Ages. Monarchs have always been highly motivated to promote military-themed sporting events. In medieval England, King Edward III actually banned team sports in 1363, probably because he was concerned that they were replacing the casual archery tournaments that had been widespread before the Black Death. Before the plague, small-town Englishmen liked to gather together for leisurely shooting matches, in much the way people today might come to a bar to shoot pool or throw darts. After the plague, those grassroots tournaments were being replaced by early versions of soccer, handball, and field hockey, which could be played in post-plague English villages, now that fallow fields were more available for recreation. We today might look on this situation, and see a poignant reminder that cultural innovation can sometimes follow on tragedy. King Edward took a different view. How would his army fare without a feeder supply of amateur archers?
The king was shortsighted. He lost the battle against team sports, but the British won many wars in the centuries thereafter. At least one great general is said to have attributed British military success to the lessons learned “on the playing-fields of Eton,” where British schoolboys threw themselves into football, rugby, handball, and the idiosyncratic “Eton wall game” (also a team sport). He meant, presumably, that the athletic and moral qualities instilled by team sports were essential to forming good soldiers and officers.
Whether or not the great Duke actually said this, the idea has resonated throughout the Anglosphere. Brits, Americans, Canadians, Aussies, and New Zealanders have energetically worked to establish professional and collegiate sports leagues. We love our youth sports, too. Like races and individual combat, team sports encourage fitness and mental toughness. But they add a stronger social element, and the cooperative element makes for strategic complexity, mimicking the dynamics of a successful military. In retrospect, King Edward should probably have invested in some goal posts.
Fortunately, his ban was not effective. Anglo sports are now played in virtually every country in the world. From Mongolia to Mali, one can find groups of children bouncing an orange ball, or kicking a black-and-white one. It really is not an exaggeration to say that all of the world’s most popular team sports were invented by the English and their immediate cultural descendants. Soccer, cricket, rugby, tennis, handball, and field hockey all have British origins. Americans invented basketball, baseball, and volleyball, and Australians and Americans both have their own venerated football traditions. Ice hockey, as a derivation of English field hockey, originated in Canada.
All across the planet, people play our sports, because they are exciting, fun, and community-building. The British Empire is no more, and American geopolitical influence may also wane, but the sports we invented will be played for centuries to come. Will federalism really be America’s longest-lasting contribution to humankind? Or will it be basketball?
That question may seem glib, but we Anglos should take pride in our sports. They represent a tremendous cultural achievement, giving embodied form to many of our society’s most admirable characteristics. It cannot be an accident that the Anglosphere has invented at least ten globally beloved team sports, while the Confucian East has invented none.
In the English-speaking world, we value rule of law. Within the realm of law, personal excellence and innovation become more possible, because people trust that their labors will be worthwhile. This observation is commonplace in the realm of political theory, and in economics, but it is equally relevant to sport. Team sports involve a delicate balance between cooperation and competition, which can only be achieved with the help of complex rules, authoritative referees, and players who respect the game itself. Without that shared respect, team sports will never reach high levels of excellence. Why would anyone spend years cultivating the idiosyncratic skill set needed to be (say) an elite right tackle, unless he trusted that the game would be played properly? Those efforts can only pay off in a game with clear rules, reliable referees, and a general understanding that all will uphold the integrity of the game.
When team sports are played well, they have their own kind of dynamism, which mirrors the fruitfulness we see in free markets, and free cultures. The broader dynamics are similar. A successful team must harness the talents of individual players, but those individuals must also cooperate, understanding themselves to be part of a larger whole. As in every other area of life, it can be quite difficult to find the correct balance between fostering individual excellence and encouraging group cohesion. That’s why it is so difficult to invent a good team sport. There’s a reason so many cultures have fallen back on the obvious: just seeing who can run the fastest.
Foot races don’t draw us together in the way team sports do, though. A team sport creates a “little platoon” of players, who can then fight for the honor of the communities they represent. This, too, is a defining feature of the Anglo tradition. In more Confucian cultures, greater emphasis is placed on harmony, cooperation, and pious submission to authority. That doesn’t facilitate fruitful competition among regions. Creative excellence in sport is always motivated by a desire to win, but ideally rivals should be close and accessible, so that they can compete regularly, and sharpen one another’s skills. None of this will seem appropriate or natural in societies that are relentlessly focused on unity.
If the Chinese learned the right lessons from their struggle to keep up with us (literally and figuratively) at the Olympic Games, they might end up with a very different sort of society.
Of course, there will always be many reasons to hate the Olympics. They are expensive. Russia can’t seem to stop cheating. We are always subjected to a ghastly performance of an English songwriter’s salute to communism.
Let’s not obsess over the details, though. Whatever the motivations, the fact remains that, China has brought athletes from around the world to their own soil. Those athletes might show the CCP the excellence that freedom, integrity, and resourcefulness can foster.
God bless America. Also, God save the Queen.