Skip to main content
Original Issue


Whether it's a hill climb in the Tour de France (below) or a game of 'tejo' in Colombia, the sporting thrill belongs to every country this Olympic year. Here is an account of some national favorites

The sporting continent of Australia during these Olympic Games will harbor more than the nine million dead-game sports of whom William Worden wrote last week in these pages. For the athletes who come to Melbourne from all the corners of the world will also bring with them some part of their own special world, the home country which has sent them there. And though they may compete in events familiar to all—track and field, rowing, field hockey and all the rest—there will be some part, in all of them, of the many and varied sports they practice at home—sports which the visitor may never even have heard of. For as varied as the people of the world are, so varied are their sporting pastimes.

In Colombia there's a popular native game called tejo, which is roughly comparable to horseshoe pitching in that a four-inch iron disk is thrown at a pit of sand. The resemblance ends right there, explosively, because hidden in the pit is a dynamite cap, and if the throw is good the cap goes off in a shower of sand. When the tejo players are out in force, the atmosphere is positively insurrectional.

Colombia won't be sending a tejo team to Melbourne this month. Pakistan's tent peggers will be staying home, too, and so will Gaelic footballers, who would rather be caught dead than be shoneen. Tent pegging is an ancient horseback sport which had its beginnings as a tactic of tribal warfare—lancers galloped into an enemy camp, uprooted the tent pegs and then proceeded to chop up their suffocating victims at leisure. To be shoneen is, loosely, to ape the British, and the Irish decided that the safest way to avoid this was to invent a game nobody else played.

The game in which almost everybody else on earth does ape the British is, of course, association football—soccer. It is virtually a world sport. Of the 74 nations competing in the Olympics, no fewer than 35 consider it their leading game, and the clean whack of a goal-bound kick rises from literally hundreds of thousands of playing fields from Central and South America, to Europe and the Middle East, through the U.S.S.R. to Red China and into Southeast Asia. South Africa is a hold-out; it's better there to be a scrum-battered Springbok, that is, a Rugby player on the nation's leading team.

Soccer began in 12th century England when villagers with as many as 500 on a side passed the afternoons by kicking a large ball from one end of town to the other. Today, in London alone there are 380 soccer fields, and the attendance last season at games played by teams of Great Britain's four major leagues was more than 34 million—more than twice as many as attended major league baseball games in the U.S. this year. Forty-one-year-old Stanley Matthews, who has a good head and a great pair of feet, is the idol of minor leaguers and schoolboys. The West German Soccer Association lists 1.7 million amateur players and, when their world champion professional team returned in triumph to Munich in 1954, the appreciative fans showered them with gifts worth about $15,000 per player. Fritz Walter, Germany's soccer hero, is also an author of some note, having published two runaway bestsellers on his tips on the game.

In many places soccer attendance makes a full house at Yankee Stadium look as sparse as Ladies' Day. One hundred and twenty thousand people hollered "Go, Fritz, go!" at Leipzig recently, and at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro more than 200,000 fans scream happily for Waltz Foot and Big Head, players whose vertically varied talents lend surprise to the Brazilian attack.

The behavior of such mobs is often unpredictable. In Maracana, for example, there is a moat around the field to separate the players and referees from the spectators; stabbings are commonplace, and police are forever finding weapons concealed in lunchboxes and umbrellas. In the U.S.S.R. enthusiasts are jailed regularly for "hooliganism," a charge which in this connection usually means that the offender smashed a beer bottle over the head of the comrade sitting in front of him; but in Ethiopia, out of deference to the emperor, soccer riots don't start until Haile Selassie has left the park.

In Czechoslovakia, however, soccer manners are almost ladylike. The crowds watch play with a Forest Hillian raptness and silence and, before the game starts, in apologetic token of the violence to come, the players present each other little bouquets of flowers. When another Italian team lost to Rome recently, crestfallen rooters found mocking notices pinned to their front doors: "Yellow and red family of Roma announces the death of dear Sister Lazio who died today after a painful game.... We offer condolences."

Naturally enough, soccer is a big game for the bettors. More than $200 million was wagered in Great Britain last year, and the soccer tote is a major source of Italy's national income. There is a lively player market; an Argentine from Newell's Old Boys gets a cut of the purchase price when he is sold to River Plate, and Swedish youngsters dream of the day when they can grow up and, like Gunnar Nordahl, draw the excited bidding of rich Italian promoters.

Another generally popular world-wide sport which has had little recognition in the U.S. is cycling. Normal activity comes to a virtual standstill during the 2,800-mile Tour de France. Schools close down, and 12 million fans line the roads as the grimy "gods of the wheel" crank their way around the countryside. On the highest level, the sport is professional; but in France everybody cycles, and on weekends the highways are jammed with pedalers, spare tires circled around their chests, holding sprints and mending broken chains. In some South American countries the children are organized for tricycle racing, and in Belgium recently 75,000 mourners filed past the body of Cycling Hero Stan Ockers as he lay in state.

The American sports of baseball and basketball have surprising acceptance around the world. Played throughout the Middle East and central Europe, basketball got a boost in Hong Kong a few years ago when the Harlem Globetrotters paid a visit. Red China is reported to have several hook-shot artists over 6 feet 3 inches tall. The game is especially popular in the Philippines, where there is an outdoor court in every school and barrio. The best Philippine players, in spite of the handicap of their small stature, are fast playmakers and good shots, who placed third to the U.S. and Brazil in an international tournament in 1954.

The Japanese, as Don Newcombe knows, can pull the inside fast ball. In fact, players in the two top professional leagues can do everything pretty well, and last year 11.5 million fans turned out to watch them. There is even a league of professional girl ball-players who fearlessly play the regulation game. The sport is well-organized at all levels; 600,000 people turn out for the annual junior high school tournament in Osaka. The Japanese attitude toward baseball, though, is undergoing some significant change. There was a time when a bad call, a muffed pop-up or a sharp grounder played off the skull drew nothing but polite gasps from the fans. Now, in spite of the fact that the players still line up, doff their caps and bow at each other before every game, the spectators have discovered the true appropriateness of vocal ebullience and downright derision, which add considerable color to their contests.

The Latins, naturally, lend splendid color to the sport. A home run in Caribbean baseball is likely to induce a salvo of rockets from the tops of buildings adjoining the park. If Gladys Gooding ever leaves her organ at Ebbets Field for a spot with Havana, she will have to learn mambo and the Cha Cha Cha.

Jumping up a hemisphere, the ice and snow sports are widely popular in Canada, Switzerland and northern Europe. The 61,000 members of the Ski-Association in Norway are all active competitors, and on a clear winter Sunday literally half the population of Oslo is out schussing down slopes around the city. A skating race card will draw as many as 30,000 spectators. In Canada children can begin playing organized hockey at the age of 8; there are 16,000 kids playing in the various leagues in Montreal alone. Professionals Jean Beliveau and Maurice Richard have the status of folk heroes and, when Richard was suspended last year for striking a referee, there were street riots bigger than any police disturbance in Canada since the conscription riots of World War I.

Both Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union play fierce, high-caliber hockey. When the Russians got beaten not long ago, the home team Czech fans boldly sent the losers off the rink with Lenin's dictum of "Learn, learn, learn" ringing to the rafters.

Though on that particular day the Russians might have needed a little polish on their hockey, there's no doubt that they are generally the most doggedly learning sports nation in the world. There are 156 schools in Russia for the training of coaches and athletic directors; the chairman of the All Union Committee for Physical Culture and Sport has the equivalent of cabinet rank. Seventeen million participated in eliminations for the pre-Olympic Spartakiada at which 9,000 winners tried for places on the team going to Melbourne. In 1955, 3½ million school-aged children were presented awards called "Ready for Labor and Defense"; to qualify for these the children had to pass a series of strict general fitness tests in everything from swimming to skiing to first aid.

The Finns approach the Russians in their almost devotional mass participation in sports. There are literally 700,000 sporting clubs in Finland, the equivalent of one for about every six citizens. Partly because of the lasting myth of Paavo Nurmi, track and field have enormous popularity; it has been said that the track suit is a second national costume. On the weekends just about everybody with enough breath to get out of bed runs; the air is filled with discuses; a careless straphanger in Helsinki is likely to get a javelin between the shoulder blades. In 1941 Finland challenged Sweden to a walking race. The rules were simple: adult males had to cover 15 kilometers in two hours and 20 minutes, women and children had to walk 10 kilometers in one hour and 40 minutes. Forty percent of the population—1,510,000 Finns—covered the course in the specified time; the oldest competitor was 94, and he had to trudge a considerable distance to the starting line.

This business of international competition for everybody, with Sweden again the victim, cropped up in a mass swimming match with Iceland. Using the orthodox breaststroke, 25% of all Icelanders swam the required 200 meters. The Swedes, with a paltry 2%, barely got wet. Aquatic fitness is compulsory in Iceland; every school child, every member of the fishing fleet or merchant marine must be a qualified swimmer. Because the waters around Iceland are about the temperature of a good martini, the swimming is confined to pools, most of which are warmed by natural hot springs, electricity or hot water from radiator motors in fish freezing plants.

Much to the good fortune of world-traveling U.S. horse players, the ponies run in just about every place big enough to display a tote board. Introduced to England during the time of the Roman conquest, the sport of horse racing gained royal prestige in the reign of Charles II, and today the addiction is such that four million Britons bet one billion dollars a year on equine gavottes on the undulating, sometimes even hilly, English tracks. Venezuelans wager two million bolivars a week at the big Caracas meeting. But certain countries support variations on the races which might confuse American bettors. In New Zealand, for example, as well as in France and a few other places, the horses run the wrong way around.

The popularity of golf and tennis is geographically widespread, but in most countries these sports are confined to the better-heeled. The same is true of small-boat sailing at which Bermudians and Bahamians are especially expert. Hunting is enjoyed by just about everyone from Bedouin tribesmen to Irish gentlemen, the game fishing is good off the coast of Chile and, for the fisherman who doesn't care, porgies are plentiful in the Aegean. Because every able-bodied Swiss male must have a rifle, target shooting is an important pastime there, as it is in Yugoslavia and Red China. Throughout Europe, particularly in Italy where the Argentine Driver Juan Fangio is revered, automobile road racing is widely followed. The Turks are excellent wrestlers, the Filipinos good boxers. Bullfighting, surprisingly enough, while immensely popular in Mexico, is on the decline in Spain, principally because of Franco's open disapproval.

No report on world sports would be complete without mentioning cricket, that interminable game in which batting prowess can lead to knighthood. In England and all throughout the sphere of Empire influence the sport enjoys tremendous prestige and, although relatively few people play it, every Englishman follows it. Somewhere in the world, right this very minute, a beleaguered British batsman stands vigilant at a wicket, and it's entirely possible that, crisis or no crisis, he'll still be there tomorrow.



"Honestly, Bud, I didn't know it was loaded."



Continuing the series begun last week, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED presents another of the feature presentations which will culminate next week in the Olympic Preview Issue. This special issue will present stars of all the competing nations—in color—commissioned paintings, scouting reports and an exclusive forecast on the track and field contests by Roger Bannister.