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Sports and Defense | The Nation

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Sports and Defense

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This war is a war of machines; or so, at least, the experts insist. And for once events seem to confirm their opinion. It was doubtless the superiority of the German war machine that made possible all the German victories, both the bloody ones and the earlier, bloodless ones. The Poles, the Dutch, the Belgians, and the French were defeated because they didn’t have weapons equal to those of the Germans. So we have been saying all along. And from the time it was generally conceded that we too had to be prepared, there has been talk of nothing but machines of war—the building of which seemed to be preparedness enough.

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It isn’t enough, of course.

The English say, “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The sentiment is valid in this war too—and in any war. Wars are always waged with men as well as weapons. Men must have a certain minimum fitness, or the finest bombing planes and tanks won’t help.

It is strange that the United States of all countries should have forgotten this. For in the first World War the American troops demonstrated the importance of their athletic training for practical warfare. Half of the men in the famous 69th Regiment were New York public-school athletes. Nearly a hundred thousand—98,785 to be exact—of the volunteers from New York had participated in the activities of the Public School Athletic League. During the war itself, American Y. M. C. A. instructors helped direct the athletic training of soldiers here and in France. These instructors fostered sports that would improve the alertness, skill, initiative, and efficiency of their men. It was soon discovered that sports did more than stimulate fitness and morale; they improved the technique of the troops. It was found, for instance, that boxers could handle bayonets skillfully and that baseball players could throw hand grenades with deadly aim.

Only after the draft act of 1940 was passed was it recalled that human fitness is a decisive factor in building a defense machine, and that sports are a decisive factor in acquiring fitness. Ironically enough, promoters of professional sports were the first who publicly connected sports and defense. They didn’t begin propaganda for sports as an integral part of the defense program. They simply voiced their fears. They were afraid that their highly paid and highly profitable boxers, baseball players, and football players might be drafted.

However, things began to happen. The War Department ordered a million dollars’ worth of sports equipment and set aside $2,800,000 for sports activities in general. Gene Tunney was called upon by the navy to coordinate physical education. Dr. W. M. Lewis, president of Lafayette College, made a speech urging colleges and universities to make their sports facilities available to men of draft age. There were other speeches and suggestions. D. Benedetto, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, advocated doubling the sports activities organized and controlled by the A. A. U. as “the democratic answer to the dictators’ athletic program.” While Mr. Benedetto’s recommendation is by no means the whole answer, he is undoubtedly on safe ground in asserting that the dictators have a program that calls for counteractivity.

Let's look for a moment at the athletic programs of the dictators.

It wasn’t Hitler who started using sports as a preparation for war in Germany. It was most probably General Ludendorff. In October, 1914, a proclamation was read in all German public schools, ordering that five minutes of each recess period be devoted to running practice. The General Staff had decided that one of the reasons for the defeat on the Marne had been the inability of the German soldier to retreat fast enough. German schoolboys now had seven hours of gymnastics weekly, instead of two, as before. In 1915 the Juggendkompanien, or youth squads, were, founded, with compulsory participation for every boy over sixteen. The boys received military training camouflaged under the terms of a secret decree that said, “Care must be taken that these exercises appear athletic in character.”

After the war of 1914-18, when the Weimar Republic attempted to purge gymnastics of militarism, the embittered former army officers organized youth leagues for Gelaendesport (open air athletics) with “political enlightenment” thrown in for good measure. Their Nationale Kampfspiele were not games but military exercises. The secret Free Corps, which went in for political assassination, developed logically out of them. Another of their products was the SA of the National Socialist Party. The SA (Sport-Abteilung) was founded in 1921 and proclaimed as “A special party section for gymnastics and sports.” It grew into the notorious Sturm-Abteilung, or Storm troops, thus completing a cycle; sports, introduced to win the war, became a screen behind which Hitler prepared for the next war.

When the Nazis came to power, one of their first acts was to coordinate sports. A Sportsfuehrer was appointed. Every German must be fit to fight and must keep in shape. The Hitler Youth began playing rather curious games. They practiced marching, digging trenches, and crawling under barbed wire, and using bayonets. The students and the numerous workers’ organizations, as well as the SA and the SS (Schutz Staffel), had to practice shooting, marching, and gliding.

When Hitler made sport a training school for his army, he borrowed his ideas partly from the old German General Staff and partly from Stalin. Since 1930 there have been no private sports at all in Russia. Sport is a state function, directed by the Council for Physical Education, and a tremendous advance has been made. In 1920 the very word “sports” was almost unknown in Russia. In 1934—no figures have been published since—there were more than 4,000 sports grounds and stadiums, more than 2,000 indoor arenas; there were more than 8,000,000 active, organized athletes. And 100,000,000 roubles a year was spent on their activities. But of course it wasn’t sport for sport’s sake. Some of the “sports” practiced were: hand-grenade throwing, swimming fifty meters with a rifle, shooting, reading maps.

The German use of sports as a preparation for war was even more thorough than the Russian and on a greater scale. The Nazis admitted it openly. Shortly before the 1936 Olympic Games, Hermann Teske, sports instructor at the Zossen military school near Berlin, published a pamphlet in which he said: “All German sport must have a purpose. The goal of physical training is readiness for defense.”

In the United States sports are taken seriously, probably too seriously. We know how to train our athletes. Our colleges and even our public schools are sometimes regular training camps. We want victories, and we get them. But what do these victories mean in the light of our defense preparations?

We like to think of ourselves as the leading sports nation in the world. But are we? We hold most of the records, but records aren’t everything. When it comes to sports facilities, the Germans appear to be at least our equals, in proportion to their population.

It is almost impossible to get anywhere by comparing the sports activities of different nations. Most nations, including ours, have never collected definite figures on active sports participants. And almost every nation stresses different sports. As for sports facilities, it is difficult to coordinate the various statistics. Playing fields and swimming pools can be of varying sizes and capacities. For purposes of reaching an approximate index, however, comparative sports facilities may be expressed in terms of the number of athletes using a hypothetical field of a given size. Such a playing field would be used:

In the United States by . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100 athletes
In Germany by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100 athletes
In England by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160 athletes
In Russia by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30 athletes
In France by . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .410 athletes

While these figures show that American sports facilities are sufficient to train the same percentage of the athletic population as was trained in Germany before the war, Germany completely outclasses us when it comes to sports that are a direct preparation for war. For example, affiliated with the National Rifle Association of America are some 3,300 rifle clubs with B membership of about 300,000. The greater part of them, moreover, use the smallBore non-military rifle. In Germany, with’half our population, there are 13,942 dubs with a membership of 419,569. There are 732 practice fields for gliding in Germany, and thousands of German youths participated in this sport which, until a short time ago, was not even considered a sport in the United States. And in such splendid activities as crawling under barbed wire and digging trenches, we have no competition to offer at all.

There are, of course, other important points. In the first place, with twice the population our potential sports activity is much greater than Germany’s, and in the end, it is always a question of potential rather than of actual power. If we consider men up to twenty-four years of age as active athletes, and examine the population according to age groups, we find that in the United States 18 per cent of the population could be mobilized as Athletes while in Germany before the war only 10 per cent were available.

Of even more decisive importance are the conflicting basic ideas on which the sports of the two countries are founded. Something essential to fitness may be acquired through sports only if they are devoted to the development of the individual character, rather than to the perfection of strength; to the creation of initiative rather than to the creation of blind and unreasoning obedience. The Finns have the idea. They call it sisu—an untranslatable word expressing will and tenacious endurance until victory. The French had it; they called it morale. The English have it, of course, but they have no word for it. We have it too—we call it guts.

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