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Playing for Keeps


For the second time since its opening in 1987, I visited the Independence Hall of Korea, a huge patriotic monument south of Seoul; and I was struck by the same thoughts as during the first visit: Was my revulsion a sign of decadence, of Western flabbiness? Were Spengler and Toynbee perhaps right? Is there something to the idea of the rise and fall of national, even racial vigor? Intellectually, one rebels against such notions. But still the place overwhelms by its sheer force; it has the fascination of Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. One notes the kitsch, the absurd mysticism, the sentimentality, the brutal aesthetics, but one cannot deny the power.

Unlike before, the place was virtually empty. People were either at work or watching the Olympics on TV. I examined at my leisure the great Patriots Memorial, the Patriotic Poems and Quotations, and the Grand Hall of the Nation, an enormous temple with large stone groups of patriots, nude, Nordic-looking and vigorous, their lantern jaws and outstretched arms pointing toward a glorious future. The effect of histrionic power was heightened by Wagnerian music and sounds of drums and neighing horses. The hall commemorates the struggle against Japanese colonialism. The style owes a great deal to Arno Breker and Stalin’s socialist realists. The purpose, according to the official guide, is “to awaken Korean national consciousness and promote patriotism.” The method is quasi-religious.

Inside the exhibition halls I noted some of the anthropological information. On the physical characteristics of Koreans (in English): “Their arms are rather short. Their heads tend to be flat in the back and their foreheads are rather broad, suggesting large brain capacity.”

In the history section there was a nineteenth-century stone with an inscription that read: “Western barbarians invade our lands—if we do not fight, we must appease them. To urge appeasement is to betray our nation.” A rebellion by the Righteous Army against the Japanese in 1907 was said to have “sent a signal to the world that the Koreans were prepared to unite to fight for their national sovereignty, justice and world peace.”

At the end of the exhibition, as a kind of climax after all the heavy oil paintings of battle scenes, pictures of Japanese atrocities, and relics of Korean martyrdom, we get to the Olympic games. There is a model of the Olympic stadium, there are photographs of Korean medalists at the 1986 Asian games in Seoul, and, in a panoramic film, entitled Korea, My Motherland, we see a thousand young Taekwondo fighters in identical martial gear punching the air in unison while letting out a piercing battle cry. This is followed by images of steel furnaces, followed by more pictures of Korean athletes winning gold.

Welcome to ‘88 Olympics, and the Land of Ginseng,” says a ginseng-root drink commercial: “Ginseng for over forty centuries has symbolized power and youth throughout Asia.”

Korea’s Economy Outpowers Japan’s at Time of Tokyo Olympic Games in 1964,” said a headline in the Korea Times on the day before the opening ceremony.

We must say we are proud that the miracle-maker of the East, Korea, has done it again,” said a columnist called Rhee Chong-ik in the same newspaper, commenting on the games.

Power, miracle, power, power! One cannot escape it: these are the expressions of a country that is either superbly confident or racked by anxiety. Whenever one assumes it to be the former, evidence of the latter tends to break through. When a Greco-Roman wrestler called Kim Young-nam won Korea’s first gold medal, the Korea Times was in ecstasy: “He did it. He turned the entire nation wild with enthusiasm, quenching their thirst for the gold.” But whenever I felt the inclination to sneer at this thirst, I was held back by a hint of anxiety too: How will countries that lack this thirst, that scoff at notions of national vigor, that take the good life for granted be able to compete with people who are so hungry for achievement and recognition, for power and gold medals?

Many times during my stay in Seoul I was reminded of an athlete who was the antithesis of all this power and glory: Eddy the Eagle, the bumbling British amateur high-jump skier, who endeared himself at Calgary this year by his clownish performances. Part of his charm was his complete indifference to finishing last. He exemplified Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s Olympic ideal (which, incidentally, was far from the ideal of the highly competitive ancient Greeks): just to take part was enough, winning was irrelevant. Apparently, Eddy got on the nerves of his more pugnacious rivals, particularly, I believe, the East Germans. The Koreans would not have understood Eddy either. To them he would have seemed typical of Western decadence. And perhaps they would have been right. Is there not something flabby and complacent about the British indifference (some might even say attraction) to failure? Or is it a sign of higher civilization? Or is it perhaps both?

British athletes did not do very well at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Germany did best, and both Italy and Japan did better than Britain. One Rev. F. Brompton Harvey wrote a letter at the time to the conservative Daily Telegraph, observing that “the failure of Englishmen in the Olympic Games should give a jolt to our national complacency…. What are the reasons for this decline in athletic prowess—in skill and will to win?” The answer, in the reverend’s opinion, was democracy, which encourages mediocrity and does away with virility. “And we need not wonder if this failure in manly sports on the world stage is interpreted by our rivals as another proof that England has ‘gone soft.”’1


Sports of one kind or another have a long history of being used to fend off decadence. Richard D. Mandell, in his highly engaging study of the first modern Olympics held in Athens in 1896,2 writes that sport “was an integral part of many educational schemes advanced by Greek philosophers to improve or reform their society.” The Romans, with the exception of a few philhellenes, found sports—particularly when indulged in without clothes on—bad for the character. But gory gladiatorial spectacles, which were sports of a kind, were approved of. According to Mandell, some Roman moralists recommended this type of blood sport as a way of accustoming effete youths to the sight of carnage.

Medieval knights were kept out of mischief by staging jousting tournaments. And the common people found their pleasure through the ages in games of various kinds. But sports as an exercise in national character building, the philosophical foundation of the modern Olympics, came much later. That belongs to the nineteenth century, when national consciousness was, to use a twentieth-century expression, raised all over Europe.

There were two distinct European sporting traditions: sports, specifically athletics and team games, as a way to test individual skills and character; and sports as a mass spectacle, to forge unity and promote a cultish kind of beauty, often involving pagan rites—torchlight parades and so on. As one might have guessed, the former was Anglo-Saxon in origin, the latter German. The British were cricketers and athletes, the Germans preferred gymnastics, or, as they called the art of body contortions, Turnen. Turnen was an expression of Germanness (Deutschtum). The word Turnen was coined by the so-called Turnvater, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778–1852).

The Turnvater was a patriot spurred into action by Napoleon’s occupation of Germany. His Turnbewegung was part of an effort to unify the German nation. Clubs were formed and eventually great festivals held on special Turndays, when turners demonstrated their loyalty to the Second Reich in the form of mass calisthenics. Turners were contemptuous of the kind of sports enjoyed by decadent Anglo-Saxons. The turners, writes Mandell, “claimed that sport was an alien infection that might damage the integral structure of robust German culture.” Jahn, apart from being responsible for the physical torture of generations of continental children (my father’s back never quite recovered from his childhood contortions), has left his mark on sports to this day: he was the inventor of the rings, the pommel horse, and the parallel bars.

Turnen was closely linked to a wider movement in Germany, a neoclassical cult of physical beauty called the Nordische Freikörperkultur (NFKK), which reached its apotheosis around about the time of Hitler’s Olympics in 1936. Body culture involved much healthy nudity and well-oiled heroic posturing. Leni Riefenstahl’s films, of the Berlin Olympics especially but also Triumph of the Will, about the Nuremberg rally, are the perfect documents of this sort of thing. Riefenstahl, inspired by generations of German romantics, was big on harmony with nature, in woods or on lonely mountaintops, preferably at dusk. When the young men in her films are not harmonizing with nature, they march, perform great physical feats, or indulge in healthy horseplay, yodeling with pleasure as they beat each other with twigs in the sauna bath. Riefenstahl’s employers liked these young men to be blond, but the film-maker herself was as much drawn to the physical perfection of Jesse Owens as to “healthy SA men” of the Third Reich.

The groundwork for Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Sukarno’s, Mussolini’s, Kim Il Sung’s, and, yes, South Korean monuments, in stone or in the flesh (the difference is not always easy to detect), was laid by eighteenth-century neoclassicists, such as the artist Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). This propagandist for the French Revolution reacted against the effete rococo style of the ancien régime. Riefenstahl’s marching men in their high boots (or athletic singlets), and their expressions of steely determination, are the heroic neoclassical images come to life. The aesthetic, then, was not uniquely German in origin. But the link with mass sports events was certainly German. And the peculiarly Teutonic link with the Olympic idea is suggested by the title of a book, first published in 1924 but reissued in an expanded version in 1936: Mensch und Sonne, Arischolympische Geist (“Man and Sun, the Aryan Olympic Spirit”). It was written by one Hans Süren, the inventer of a special rubber penis-holder. Süren liked to be photographed in the nude, slapping boxing bags or engaging in other such manly gestures. His inspiration, he wrote, was Hitler’s Mein Kampf.3

The British concept of sport during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was less absurd than Germany’s nudism and synchronic calisthenics, but no less patriotic. English games go back to two sources, often linked: village festivals and upper-class schools. Cricket was played by village boys in the sixteenth century and later taken up as a gentrified adult game. The special national ethos of cricket was, however, like the Olympics, a nineteenth-century phenomenon. “Mark me,” wrote a hearty headmaster of Uppingham School, “cricket is the greatest bond of the English speaking race, and is no mere game.”4 Sports, at exclusive schools as well as in working men’s clubs, were an expression of what Dr. Arnold and other eminent Victorians termed “muscular Christianity.” Sport built character, specifically the character of empire builders.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Duff Hart-Davis’s superb book Hitler’s Games (Harper and Row, 1986), p. 231.

  2. 2

    The First Modern Olympics (University of California Press, 1976).

  3. 3

    Süren’s work is discussed in an article by Boudewijn Buch in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad (August 22, 1986).

  4. 4

    Quoted in John J. MacAloon’s excellent study of Coubertin, This Great Symbol (University of Chicago Press, 1981).

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