High life | 28 July 2012

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Purity in a sport does not mix with popularity, and defending the former is anathema to the hucksters, crooks and profiteers who make up the latter. In this I do not include the sportswriters of serious newspapers, with whom I actually sympathise. They see what’s going on, but they have to report on sport and there are, after all, libel laws to protect the guilty. In the birthplace of sport — where else but Greece — football is as rotten as anywhere on earth, except in places like Thailand, where betting comes first and sport second.

When my father ‘owned’ a premier division team during the early Seventies — AEK — the various agents and advisers of the club skimmed millions off him by bringing in South American ‘Greeks’ to be inspected and sold to the club. The law back then was only two foreigners per team, so the rest had to find Greek roots, an easy enough task for the dodgy agents peddling them to dear old innocent dad. Some had Greek-sounding names, like the Mexican Fanis, others had to find Greek grandmothers, like the Argentine Hector Errea. Most of them were incapable of kicking a soccer ball, and some even had trouble running in a straight line. But the experts deemed them on a par with Pele, and father paid. 

Football now is as corrupt as gambling, and maybe soon we’ll see the latter becoming an Olympic sport. I don’t know about today, but Greek referees in my time were easily and often bribed, as are refs and players being bribed as I write in most parts of the world, even in Europe, although here only in lower divisions. It is almost impossible to control and even more difficult to prove, but for a determined gambler, a poor referee or player in a small South American country, or an African or Far Eastern one, is a hands down prey. The internet and global information networks make it easy as pie, as they say in Kansas. 

At the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo, judo was introduced as an Olympic sport. Judo, and its lesser-known siblings of kendo and karate, had been banned in Japan by Allied administrators for a few years following the second world war, but all was forgiven in time for the ’64 Games. Kendo was featured as a demonstration sport, but karate did not make the cut. (Too violent back then, incidentally the year I first strapped on a white belt and went at it like gangbusters.) It was a traumatic year for the Japanese, as the great Dutch giant Anton Gesink won the heavyweight title, although the other Nippon fighters had swept the boards. For unknown reasons, I have never heard of anyone, honest or crooked, ever betting on a judo contest. The sport, as it’s now called, is as pure as synchronised swimming, although I’d much rather wrestle with the swimmers than the beasts I have to embrace at times.

Kendo, of course, has never become an Olympic sport, which is what saves this great and beautiful martial art. Before I tell you why, a word about karate. We’ve always wanted to take part in the Olympics, but were never able to unite and were outsmarted by taekwondo, run by the Korean government in reality, which bribed the IOC to allow this totally phony martial art to become an Olympian entry, because that’s all it is. Compared to karate, taekwondo is like playing American touch football, or rugby, without tackling, just barely touching the runner with the ball. Not only that, the contestants wear protective equipment in case they hurt their tootsies, or other parts of their anatomies, the poor dears. Every time one touches the opponent a score is counted, which means that if this is a martial sport I’m Monica Lewinsky’s mother. The Koreans have been found guilty since, I believe, but taekwondo now is an Olympic staple, and it’s not uncommon for some nerdy guy who is quick on his feet to show off a gold medal. I only hope for his sake he doesn’t try it in some Liverpool dive. 

Kendo means the ‘way of the sword’. Courage, honour and etiquette are imperative. The scoring is highly subjective, one that values form and execution as much as the result. An ‘Ippon’, a knockout, is not judged electronically like in fencing, but is a judgment call. Two out of three referees need to agree. Kendokas have resisted the electronic result because technology in their eyes would degrade the beauty of victory. See what I mean by purity? Judo has been compromised, as has karate, by the introduction of weight classes and by contestants scoring points, as in boxing. In the good old days — and still in the karate style I used to compete in — a 60-kilo person like yours truly could come up against a 100-kilo one, like in the street. (Except in the latter I don’t know of anyone bowing before or after the fight.) 

Kendo has resisted ‘winning at all costs’ by keeping the scoring nebulous and subjective. Form and courage beat a winning thrust. It is as if the 100-metre dash was won by one flowing effortlessly over someone faster who pumped away like a juiced-up machine, which most of these monsters are. How to be is more important, not how to win. Now that’s what Baron de Coubertin meant in the first place about what’s important in the Olympics. Taking part. Next week I’ll give you all a break. No sport, just the Middle East.