Amid the clatter and commotion of last Thursday night’s fencing match versus NYU, I noticed something you don’t often see on collegiate uniforms: Emblazoned across the backs of some Yale fencers was “USA.” Diana Schawlowski, from Germany, and some of the other non-American fencers had the names of their own countries written in faded letters on their shirts.
I tried, in vain, to research the origins of this tradition. In its by-laws, the United States Fencing Association requires that every fencer have his or her name printed legibly from a distance of 15 feet somewhere on his or her uniform, but does not make any stipulations regarding said fencers’ country of origin.
But while I failed to find the answer I was looking for, my research did remind me that sport has long been a forum in which countries can peaceably war with one another. One need look back no further than the Cold War. Indeed, other than some carefully concealed air confrontations in Korea, athletes were the only Soviets and Americans ever to actually come to blows with one another. Furthermore, the Soviet impact on some American sports has been lasting.
You would be a fool not to recognize this legacy in another pugilistic sport, wrestling. For example, a “Russian” is a particular tie-up from the neutral position. Too technical? It’s a mainstream maneuver.
But more than that, wrestling coaches, many of whom honed their skills during the Cold War era, frequently make reference to a common enemy that no longer exists. They do so to the point where the meaning of their references is often lost on youthful audiences.
“And here come the Russian paratroopers,” wrestling coach Gene Mills once told a group of his campers, while moving his hand along the mat in a style reminiscent of “Thing” from the Addams Family. He was merely trying to provide some color to a simple technique. But it was only natural for him to involve “the enemy.”
And it makes sense. Young men, sweating in an overheated, overly dry wrestling room, found an outlet for their patriotism in sport. They saw an opportunity to display their hatred for the “Evil Empire” on the Olympic athletic stage. Their desire to win came as much from internal motivation as it did from a feeling of debt to their country.
This was a different kind of war mobilization. It did not require technology or science; it was far more Rocky IV than that. And the tales of international competitors in the Era seem nearly as melodramatic as Sylvester Stallone’s depiction.
Mills relates a tale of competing in Communist Cuba. He recalls that while warming up for a match, the Cuban wrestler he was about to oppose received a signal from Castro himself. The dictator, apparently, dragged his thumb across his own throat. The undaunted Mills won handily.
So athletics provided an environment where the world’s rival ideologies played themselves out in individual and confined battles. But often at stake was an athlete’s integrity and honor.
Mills never won an Olympic medal. By many, if not all, accounts, he was the greatest wrestler in the world in 1980. He set an NCAA Division I record for pins in his four-year collegiate career. He won the 1980 World Super Championships in Japan without losing a match. And he’s the only person ever to have won the Tbilisi Tournament in the then-USSR without sacrificing a point. He was a ferocious competitor who couldn’t lose.
But Jimmy Carter and other politicians pinned down any chances Mills had of winning the one thing he truly cherished, a gold medal. The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It was politics that kept Mills off the mat. And yet Mills still voices his Cold War animosity.
What’s the greatest moment in American sports history? The Miracle on Ice. And yet, would the game be remembered so vividly and favorably today if it had not been politically charged? Probably not.
Where does this all bring us? To the point that sport once provided an outlet for patriotic fervor. It was a forum where questions debated in the political arena could be resolved, however fleetingly.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. To draw on wrestling again, Iran and Iraq both boast world-class teams. But when boys and girls grow up wrestling in the United States, they do not train with the goal of defeating an Iranian opponent. They do not picture their practice partners as Iraqi insurgents whom they must defeat at all costs.
So maybe sport has lost some of its former appeal. Maybe it now lacks what was once its higher calling.
When Yale fencers put on a uniform with USA scratched across their shoulder blades, do they feel something special each and every time? I would hope so, but I have my reservations. And that is not a commentary about them, but rather about our patriotic indifference as a society as a whole.
Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column usually appears on Wednesdays.