I am filing this column from Bloomington, Indiana, having spent the weekend in Chicago and just driven down to this southern Indiana town through some of the most fertile farm land in the world. The Indiana farmland between Chicago and southern Indiana is flat and at this time of year mostly black. Farmers are preparing the soil for the corn and other crops that will be planted shortly; but for now this means that one sees flat black earth all the way to the horizon, the view only broken by a few forlorn but sturdy farm houses and barns. New Yorkers probably do not think of the Midwestern farmlands very often, though they have always been one of the great economic strengths of our country.
Chicago is still properly called our Second City. It is, indeed, reminiscent of New York. The skyscrapers at the foot of the vast Lake Michigan are reminiscent of New York. The ethnic neighborhoods bring to mind the ethnic neighborhoods of New York, and the energy too brings back memories of New York. Like New York, Chicago is a tough city. Years ago I remember dropping George Will off at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport where we had a couple of beers while he waited for his plane to take him to Washington. George looked out at the burly men around the bar and said, “I like Chicago. It’s a man’s town.” Well, it is a tough town.
While in Chicago I found myself on the handball court with three Chicagoans in a rough doubles match. My partner happened to be a former pro player, and in fact a member of the Handball Hall of Fame, Dennis Hofflander. Our opponents were very good amateurs; both well into middle age, but believe me very strong and fast. Hofflander’s play is worth noting if only to allow me to make a universal point about sports that is dear to my heart, to wit, the pros in any sport are a world apart from the rest of us.
It always amazes me to sit at a sporting event and hear members of the audience shout objurgations at a pro player who has just dropped a ball or made some other error. Does the sports fan have any idea how superior the most mediocre pro player is to the rest of us? On the handball court with this former pro, who in the 1960s was ranked at the top of national handball until he shipped off to Vietnam, I had the opportunity to see precisely how exceptional such an athlete is. Looking over my shoulder as the ball dropped into his range I saw that he took two steps to attack the ball where lesser players would be forced to take several very inefficient steps. His eyes fastened on the ball like laser rays, and when he hit it the ball went anyplace he wanted it to go at almost any speed. No normal player could compete with him.
Bearing in mind the company I am keeping here in Bloomington, I suppose I might revise my observations to say that even in amateur sport those at the top are “a world apart from the rest of us.” I am visiting with two former Olympians from the 1960s, swimmers who dominated their events. One, Alan Somers, was America’s premier distance swimmer in his day and a gold medalist on a relay team in the 1960 Olympics. The other, Kevin Berry, was the world record holder in the butterfly and a gold medalist for Australia in the 1964 Olympics. I swam with them both and again suffered the same experience I suffered with Hofflander on the handball court. No matter how hard I might try I could never compete with them. An Olympian or a pro is far beyond the reach of the rest of us.
Of course, today there really is no distinction between amateur and professional athletics. Though in the 1960s Berry and Somers would be barred from Olympic competition for as much as accepting a free swim suit, today’s top international swimmers make hundreds of thousands of dollars from product endorsements. Ian Thorpe, the great Australian swimmer, may make as much as $10 million from endorsements. That would be $10 million more than Berry ever earned.
Years ago fans of amateur sport feared that money would pollute sport in some way. I doubt that it has today. Athletes, whether in the Olympics or the National Basketball Association, still must train hard and play by the rules. To win they have to compete to the utmost against competition that is tremendously competitive. That brings to mind another universal point dear to my heart. Competition in an athletic event is a brush with the truth. There is the winner and the loser, and usually the winner deserves to win. If I told you I was a better athlete than Hofflander, Berry, or Somers. I would be an obvious liar, which might make me an excellent candidate for high public office.
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