When I was very young my father would take me to the Panatheniac Stadium, built from Pentelic marble in Athens for the first modern Olympics in 1896. This was in the late 1940’s, and the stadium, which held 70,000, was packed. The event was track and field, and only amateurs competed. My father had been Greek champion in the 800 meters, and my uncle was an undefeated (in Greece) hurdler who had placed sixth in the Berlin Games of 1936. The only professional sport at the time in the birthplace of sport was boxing, but it was almost nonexistent. (Professional wrestling was, even back then, a circus show, considered not sport but theater.)
I came to know professional sports once I arrived in America—especially baseball, the national pastime—but no matter how hard I tried to convince the old boy about Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, he remained adamant: Sport is only for amateurs who glory in the competition; anyone competing for money is bound to corrupt the Olympic spirit. Well, except for the Black Sox in 1919, professional team sports in America are not corrupt, if only because of the degree of difficulty involved in getting, say, 20 athletes to throw a game or shave points.
I thought of my father recently when the Australian Open was overshadowed by rumors that matches have been thrown by players, although, as of this writing, no names have surfaced. But for Chronicles readers, here’s a tip: If names ever surface, an Argentine, a Russian, and a South American, all in the top 50, will be charged, but nothing will be proved. That I guarantee, unless there is a mea culpa by one of those indicted, one who has been offered a fortune by some TV channel to come clean.
In a sport like tennis, throwing a point or a match is impossible to prove. The Tennis Integrity Unit, which was formed in 2008 after a surge in suspicious betting activity, is as useless as the United Nations. It operates by monitoring betting activity. But how does one prove that a player with the best overhead in the world who misses a sitter on a crucial point missed it on purpose? Matches are more often lost on errors than they are won on winners. Tennis is a game of inches.
I stopped playing competitively after 11 years on the tour. It was 1968, and the game had gone pro. While it remained amateur, no one ever threw a match, because all players were in it for the love of the game. The only bets that I was aware of during my playing days were the ones between players, involving the loser picking up a dinner check. At present 120,000 matches are played annually, and gambling syndicates monitor them closely. In fact, bookie syndicates like William Hill sponsor major tournaments. Most players who are approached by gamblers are not in the top 50, because the top 50 make more money being honest. Yet the game is a microcosm of capitalist society. The best become very, very rich. The middle make an adequate living. The bottom struggle to make ends meet. Approached by a corruptor offering 30,000 greenbacks to drop a set, or even a match, which he or she may lose anyway, a player may answer Calypso’s song.
See what I mean by my daddy’s theory? Track and field, the purest and most ancient of sports except for wrestling, is totally corrupt, with African executives blackmailing athletes who have been caught doping for vast kickbacks to purchase their silence. Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, has its international schedule controlled by an African-Gulf mafia that illegally sells venues for future championships to the highest bidder. Compared to soccer and track, tennis corruption is minor.
But back to Daddy. I remember him running the relay for his club when he was well into his late 30’s. My uncle once beat the world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles in Athens, and was told the next day not to bother to return to the bank where he worked. Bob Mathias, of Greek extraction but as American as apple pie, won Olympic gold medals in the decathlon, the toughest event, in the 1948 and 1952 games, and never made or asked for a penny from the AAU. Mal Whitfield, a black soldier in World War II, won gold in the 800 in the 1952 and 1956 games. He worked as a teacher for the rest of his life and never complained about segregation. He was called an Uncle Tom by Muhammad Ali.
Mathias and Whitfield were great amateur athletes and true heroes. They were the types that made America great. Donald Trump promises to make America great again. I wish him well. But are there any Mathiases and Whitfields around nowadays? I know that Daddy and my uncle are not, and just take a look at what happened to Greece after they left the scene.