“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …”
— Rudyard Kipling,
The Ballad of East and West
So goes the familiar opening of Rudyard Kipling’s The Ballad of East and West. Writing in 1889, Britain’s great adventure poet could not foresee the birth of the modern Olympic Games only seven years later. Or that athletes of over 100 nations, from the ends of the earth, would gather this month in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to compete in the 2018 Winter Games.
The revival in Athens of the ancient Greek athletic competition, in 1896, captured the world’s attention and spawned a progeny of lesser international games, including the World Police and Fire Games and the International Law Enforcement games. For a period of fifteen years, I was privileged to compete in both, running half-marathon, ten kilometer and cross- country races in games held in Sydney, Dubai, Ottawa and Barcelona.
As in the Olympic Games themselves, each of the World Police and Fire Games and International Law Enforcement Games opened with a Parade of Nations. My first such event was in Sydney, Australia, where over 40 nations were represented. Marching into the stadium with the United States team, the American flag borne proudly at the front, and hearing the roar of applause from the stands, was a thrilling experience. Later, after my first race, I had a photo taken with two competitors from the Soviet Union, a man and woman, our arms around each other. The Cold War between the United States and the U.S.S.R. was not yet over, but there in Sydney we were oblivious to political matters. Years later, I would meet one of the Russians in Dubai, at another international game, and we would have another photograph taken together.
The Twelfth International Law Enforcement Games were held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 1998. Most of the event judges were from Dubai, and martial arts athletes from several nations walked out of competition because judges were making bad calls, favoring local athletes. A meeting was held, and two sheriff’s deputies from Orange County, California, were elected to write and present an official protest in English. So it was that athletes from the United States represented athletes from eight other nations, including Russia and China, in a protest to the United Arab Emirate hosts.
Adding to this unlikely scenario, the more vocal of the sheriff’s deputies was female, which offended Arab custom, and so it was our hosts’ turn to protest. The female deputy discretely withdrew, and the officials voided the results of the contested events, which were rescheduled with an admonition to the judges to make fair calls.
In 2003, Madera’s Louie Razo and I competed in the Tenth World Police and Fire Games, in Barcelona, Spain. It was the largest such event ever held, with 10,000 active and retired law enforcement and firefighter competitors, including 900 Americans. The standing joke was that Barcelona was then the safest place in the world. Louie, a former Madera police officer and county public defender investigator, was a state martial arts champion, but he would face fierce competition in karate events in his age group.
The opening ceremony, held in Barcelona’s huge Olympic Stadium, was spectacular. Forty thousand spectators, including Spain’s King Juan Carlos II, watched as Spanish fighter jets overflew the stadium and the hour-long Parade of Nations began. When we entered with the United States team, Louie marched just behind our flag, while I ran ahead taking photos for the Madera Tribune. Behind Louie came the New York Fire Department athletes, who received a standing ovation for their heroism in response to the Twin Towers terrorist attack two years earlier.
During the games that followed, Louie and I rubbed elbows with athletes from around the world, both in competition and social events. Because of his shaved head, aggressive fighting style and gregarious nature, Louie became a favorite among martial arts competitors. German athletes nicknamed him “Shaft,” after the movie detective of that name. In the ring, Louie fought a Bulgarian, an Englishman and a Spaniard. The Spaniard won when Louie was disqualified on a technical foul, but he was too hurt to continue to the next round. Another fighter asked me to take a photo of him with Louie, calling Louie “the American bulldog,”
At the Barcelona games’ private beer garden, Louie and I socialized with law enforcement officers and firefighters from Saudi Arabia to Israel, Australia to South Africa, and Bulgaria to Kazakhstan. We never heard politics discussed – our common bond was service in public safety and the pursuit of athletic excellence.
These experiences have shown me that international athletic events, such as the Olympic Games and their progeny, truly bring East and West together, without concern for national, cultural, or racial differences. The enduring value, and the continuing promise, of these games cannot be measured in gold, silver, or bronze. Rather, they are found in the brotherhood of athletes, from the ends of the earth, both East and West, who gather in pursuit of excellence. There is fierce competition, with both triumph and heartbreak, but the men and women who compete put aside their differences of nationality, color, religion and culture.
Our American President and North Korea’s dictator may trade insults and rattle sabres, but this month athletes from both countries will competed peacefully on the athletic field. And teams from arch-enemies North and South Korea marched into the Olympic Stadium together, under a single flag, and for the first time fielded a joint Olympic team.
So East and West do indeed meet, regularly, in the context of international athletic competitions. Rudyard Kipling’s poetic line, “never the twain shall meet,” in apparent contradiction, is challenged by some as myopic, demeaning, and even racist. But those who protest should read on, for Kipling continues:
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face, though they come from the ends of the earth!
So it is with the Olympic Games. And Kipling had it right, after all.
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The Hon. David D. Minier is a former district attorney of Madera County, and a retired judge of the Superior Court. He also is the author of several books.