As the quizmaster, I served up the duck soup questions first. Who won at Wimbledon? Who had the best batting average in the major leagues?
Name the Super Bowl teams. Who won the U.S. Open golf tournament?
Then I asked the hard ones. Who won the AAU shot-put title? Name the national squash champion. Name the the leading money winner on the bowling tour. Who won the Daytona 500?
This was the yeat-end quiz I have been springing on friends who tell me they read the sports page first and the editorial page last. Get the important infromation first they say. Perhaps that sequence is giving it to them - I have some doubt - but whatever they are reading about sports it is clear, from the test results of my quiz, they are not retaining it.
These sports addicts are actually sports ignorami. One or two of the sharper ones can remember that Bjorn Borg took Wimbledo and Hubert Green the U.S. Open. But the shot put squash or bowling champs? No way. A blindside.
I am not surprised. The human mind, whether it feeds first on this morning's sports or this morning's opinions, need the nutrition of substance, and American sports offered little of that in 1977.
Only to take the three most promoted national games - baseball, football and basketball - the memorable had to do with feuding (among the New York Yankees), tantrums (Woodie Hayes punching a photographer after his Ohio State he men lost) and assault (kermit Washington barbarously decking an opponent). Even if an occasional record is set - Al Geiberger's 59 in the Memphis Open - the fog of pseudo-records soon enshrouds it: someone signs the richest tennis tournament.
Some of us who have become disenchanted by the hollowness of professional sports, and who seldom bother even to watch the major events on television much less to go to the stadiums or sidelines, are coming to realize that as spectators and participants we have a refuge beyond sports: athletics.
The differences are many, Sports involve performance, athletics involve wholeness. People in sports are paid money, those in athletics earn satisfaction. Sports means setting records for the world to beat, athletics means setting records for yourself to beat. Sports is what you do for a season; after it ends, you do something else: Catfish Hunter of the Yankees goes hunting in the North Carolina woods. Athletics is year-round, learning the subleties of your body, as it adjusts to the summer heat or the winter freeze. Sports require winners and losers, athletics need excellence. The athlete doesn't "play" a sport, he lets the sport play in him. It becomes a part of his wholeness, influencing his soul and spirit as much as those forces influence the way he cares for his body.
To find athletes who meet these standards is almost a sport in itself. But they are among us, not in the lead stories of the sports pages perhaps but in the outdoors using their bodies as the Greeks and Romans taught us as amateur athletes, people who love physical excellence.
My choice for the male athlete of 1977 is Edward Ayres. I first came to know him through his writing: as the author of "What's Good For GM," a careful examination of the ethics and practises of General Motors, and later as the publisher-editor of "Running Times" magazine. In the pages of his monthly, Ayres has been going beyond mere sports writing to sports reflection. His essays on running - stylish, comprehensive and lucid - have the added credibility of coming from a man whose body has cut through the talk. Ayres recently ran (and won) the 50-mile race from Washington to Cumberland, Md., along the C&O canal. It was an event that only the most thoroughly traine athlete could take on; Ayres' time of 6 hours 3 minutes came close to the national record. It was surely a personal record.
Ayres' philosophy of athletics has a place for competition but not for the compulsive kind. In October, I saw him at the New York marathon - as a spectator. he came to enjoy the company of his friends who were running. When I met him after the event, he took as much delight in his companions who finished the race as if he had done it himself. Two weeks later, Ayres prepared for the 50-mile race by running in the 26-mile Marine Corps Reserve marathon in Washington.
Among female athletes, my choice is Kate Schmidt. She is a Californian, 24, who recently set the world's record for the javelin throw. As the first American woman in nine years to hold a world record in track and field, she understands that physical fitness is less a goal in itself than the result of sensible hygiene: in training, she quit smoking and stopped eating meat.
It appears that the field on which Schmidts hurls her javelin is not wide enough to hold her opinions about herself or her future.
"Track and field is a minor sport and the women's javelin is at the bottom rung," she told the Washington Post. "I'm not in it for attention . . . I do it for my own satisfaction, and i like it." Her ideas about her future are reminiscent of the thinking of Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur golfer from Georgia who walked away from competition at age 27 to practice law.
"I do work hard, but I stop when it becomes an obsession," Schmidt said. "I want to diversify my life, be a norman female person. I can't survive on 100 per cent jocketteism."
In the McCarthy household, where the three juniors athletes occasionally convert the living room into a gym - when the winter earth can't be used for track and field events - Ed Ayres and Kate Schmidt are the current models for excellence. Should another father in the neighborhood offer a sports quiz of his own, I hope his stumpers include, "who won the 50-mile C&O canal footrace" and, "Who holds the women's world record for the javelin?" My three young amateurs, if they can forget Reggie Jackson and Billy Kilmer for a moment, should have the answers.
My hope is that they also are learning what is behind the answers, even if it is no more than realizing that athletes Ayres and Schmidt are like three kdis in the living room who have pulled off the longest leap ever from a sofa top. The pleasures of athletic excellence can be part of anyone's wholeness. We are all athletes potentially, if we could get it out of our heads that going beyond sports is a trip worth making.