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Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006

MEDIA MIX

Flag-makers aren't the only beneficiaries of patriotism in sport


Tabloids utilize a clever kind of shorthand for their headlines in order to fix the attention of people as they pass by news-stands. My favorite one recently was a Nikkan Gendai header announcing "Ichiro's abnormal enthusiasm for WBC."

WBC stands for World Baseball Classic, the international tournament that will take place in March. Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners announced awhile back that he will play for the Japanese national team. In the meantime, two other Japanese baseball stars who play in the United States, Hideki Matsui of the New York Yankees and Tadahito Iguchi of the world champion Chicago White Sox, have said they won't.

The headline referred to the fact that on Jan. 12 Ichiro made a point of telling the media that he was really looking forward to playing in the WBC. Gendai found this "abnormal" because Ichiro is famous for being not only standoffish toward the media, but also soft in his loyalties. In fact, Ichiro's statement that his priority at this point is helping the Japanese team win the WBC is the kind of thing one would expect from the agreeable Matsui.

Tommy Lasorda, the former Los Angeles Dodgers manager who was in Tokyo recently as ambassador for the WBC, denounced Matsui for "not playing for his country." Some members of the Japanese press have gotten more specific by saying that the slugger has shown disrespect toward the team's manager, Sadaharu Oh.

Matsui would probably love to play in the WBC, but his present loyalties are with the Yankees, and owner George Steinbrenner doesn't like the WBC. Conversely, Ichiro sounds as if he's overcompensating for Matsui's and Iguchi's nonparticipation. Ichiro is the one Japanese major leaguer whom the media would expect not to participate. He likely agreed because Oh asked him personally, and may have felt stupid in doing so after the other two turned down the opportunity.

The WBC isn't the only international sporting event this year that will offer athletes and fans a chance to prove their patriotism. There's the Turin Winter Olympics next month and the World Cup in Germany this summer. Athletes compete for many reasons, but the loftiest is considered bringing glory to one's nation.

This idea has become twisted with the increasing influence of money and the dominance of professionals, but in any case patriotic fervor doesn't necessarily bring out the best in people. Some Japanese are hopping mad that world champion figure skater Mao Asada will not be allowed to compete at Turin because the rules say she isn't old enough. The Japan Association of Athletics Federations has also announced that "in principle" non-Japanese resident athletes will no longer be eligible for the national track-and-field championships because it wants to cultivate Japanese athletes for international competitions.

This is putting the cart before the horse. National pride springs from accomplishments, but sporting organizations and the media cultivate national pride before anyone has competed, and for reasons that aren't lofty: greater viability for the former, higher ratings and circulation for the latter. Patriotism sells, even when it's artificially induced. Nationalism is central to professional wrestling, a pastime that most people, even those who follow it religiously, don't consider a bona fide sport. It's more like a meta-sport: everything about it exaggerates the elements of competition into grotesque cliches. The most potent one is demonizing visiting competitors.

The appeal of pro-wrestling is watching people beat each other to a pulp in acrobatically nasty ways; except that they aren't beating each other at all. Wrestlers go through a great deal of trouble not to hurt one another, and their most celebrated skill is to "sell the show" -- make it look as real as possible.

This excites people, and if you make one of the wrestlers a villain -- a "heel" in wrestling parlance -- then you get them more excited. A common way to do this is use wrestlers who represent resented nationalities. In America following World War II, Japanese and German heels were common. During the Cold War it was Russians. Now it's Arabs.

This strategy has its variations. In March, a Korean-made movie about Rikidozan, who is credited with popularizing pro-wrestling in Japan, is set to open here. A national folk hero in the 1950s, Rikidozan imported American wrestlers and beat them in the ring in order to boost the self-esteem of Japanese citizens still smarting from their defeat in the Pacific War.

The irony is that his Japanese fans didn't know he was Korean at the time. In fact, he came to Japan to be a sumo rikishi and when he realized that the Sumo Association would never allow a Korean to be grand champion no matter how good he was, he quit. Rikidozan exploited this same chauvinism to his own advantage when he entered pro-wrestling.

The Sumo Association has progressed, and the sole grand champion now is a Mongolian, Asashoryu. However, in an interview in Aera magazine several weeks ago, Asashoryu admitted that he often felt like a heel. He knows Japanese people want to see Japanese rikishi beat him, and it makes him sad. Actually, Japanese people genuinely like Asashoryu, but once you get in the ring -- or on the field, the court, the track -- everyone expects you to represent something bigger than yourself.



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