All Commentary
Friday, September 1, 1989

Sports in America

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. He recently edited Commerce and Morality for Rowman and Littlefield.

When I arrived in America from Hungary in 1956, one of my laments was that Americans didn’t do as well as they could in the Olympic Games. The Soviet Union and other Soviet bloc countries did comparatively better, as anyone who was familiar with the record could tell.

Everyone in my family had been involved in sports. My father rowed and later became one of Europe’s better rowing coaches. He even coached in the U.S. for a while, at Philadelphia’s renowned Vesper Boat Club. My mother was 1942 foils champion in Hungary and is still a coach in Salzburg, Austria. My stepfather was a saber fencer in Budapest and is today the U.S. Olympic fencing coach. My sisters were top swimmers in Budapest. I myself did a little of everything until I decided that I had other priorities and confined myself to mere exercise, not serious athletics.

One advantage of being an athlete in Communist Hungary had been that if one showed talent and perseverance, one’s life was made much better by the state. Under most statist political systems—ones that hold the state as a higher being than the individuals who comprise it—ports become a kind of public exhibition of collective excellence. That was especially true in Hungary and is still true in most of the Soviet bloc countries, as well as in China and in some of the rightist states such as South Korea. If one demonstrates ability and willingness to become a world class athlete, one is freed from all normal responsibilities of life and is kept in considerable luxury and privilege. For this one sells one’s soul and, especially, one’s body to the state as long as it holds up.

In my ignorance of the American political tradition, I was appalled at how little investment the American government made in amateur athletics. I noted that, with all its fabulous talent, America could win at virtually any of the Olympic events, if only sufficient resources and discipline were invested in that goal.

But of course here is the rub. American society may include some of the greatest talent for practically any task, including any facet of athletics. But it is not primarily a statist system. Government in this society is—or at least is supposed to be—a servant of the people. Individuals and their own goals are of paramount importance, not showing off the system, proving to the world how fabulous the social organism happens to be.

Therefore, in America many of the Olympic events are truly amateur sports. Of course, there are exceptions and gray areas—tennis and basketball, for example. But in the main, the athletes compete because that is what they want to do. And these athletes tend to have a variety of goals in their lives, which shouldn’t be surprising for relatively free men and women. Unlike, for example, the East German swimmers, many top American swimmers take time from their training to devote to studying, family, and fun. Why not? Life has much more to offer than being a single-minded athlete. Sport, after all, is supposed to be something of an enjoyment in one’s life, not a mission of slave labor.

But I didn’t understand this when I first came to the United States. I was somewhat of a converted nationalist and didn’t realize that what made this a nation worthy of respect had little to do with winning the most medals at the Olympics, having the most productive economic system, being first in space, or any other single purpose that some people might prefer to take as a sign of collective success. What was vital for this nation—and there are signs that this has not been entirely forgotten even now, except perhaps by most of our intellectuals and politicians—was that each individual had the liberty to strive for his own goals in life, provided he or she didn’t trample on the similar efforts of others.

So now when I watch the Olympics my thinking and emotional reactions are very different from that first time I came to the United States. I scoff at all the nationalism injected into the commentary. I am usually bemused and even elated, in contrast to the network commentators, when it is noted that Americans are not doing as well as the Soviet bloc athletes—who usually appear glum even after delivering a 9.95 performance in gymnastics!

Free people do not put all their energy into a showy project such as the Olympics, except, now and then, spontaneously. Thus the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics disturbed me, although I realized that most people were celebrating the rejuvenation of the country, of which the American athletes’ success in Los Angeles tended to be a symbol. But some of the nationalism began to grate on me.

I am a refugee to this country not because it manufactures Olympic winners, or the greatest technology in the world, or for any other single achievement found in it, but because it is the best environment for individuals to pursue their own happiness, according to their own individual talents, abilities, and choices.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.