Sports figures have always held great fascination for me, and over the years I have regarded various athletes with an almost worshipful awe. When I was a child, there was the legendary cricket batsman, Hanif Mohammed, who still holds the world record for most runs in an innings in first class cricket: an unbelievable 499. I met him once along with a bunch of other neighborhood kids when he was having his car air-conditioner repaired at a workshop near our house in Karachi. He was already retired by then, and seemed very ordinary in person (I don’t know what I was expecting). There was Safdar Abbas, lighning-quick left-forward on the national hockey team, who had gone to Habib School where reverential tales of his speed and skill were still oft-exchanged when a little later I attended 4th and 5th grades there. There was Tanveer Dar, penalty corner specialist for Pakistan’s hockey team in the 70s, who had a name too cool sounding to ignore. Tanveer Dar. I still like saying it.
Later, there were three squash players in succession, Geoff Hunt of Australia, and then, Jehangir Khan and Jansher Khan of Pakistan. Another squash player also had a cool sounding name and an unconventional game, both of which took a hold on my psyche: Gogi Allauddin. I played squash against him once at the Lahore gymkhana at a time when I believe he was ranked number 2 in the world. Mutual friends had introduced us and he had no idea how good or bad I was but was arrogant enough that before we started, he said that if I was able to win a single point in a game of 21 points, he would buy me dinner. I bought him dinner. An Austrian skier I was temporarily obsessed with was Franz Klammer, and around the same time I had the severest crush on Nadia Comeneci, even daydreaming about marrying her (I was too young for more imaginative fantasies) when I wasn’t too busy planning my wedding to Miss Müller, my 7th grade German teacher. (Miss Müller once took the whole class out to a German restaurant for a bit of exposure to German culture, and my eagerness to impress her was such that on a dare from another kid I ate a whole candle that was on our table. Needless to say, this stunt did not have the desired effect of making the lovely Miss M. want to marry 12-year-old me, but I did eventually manage to seduce another more susceptible Miss M., also a native German-speaker, into marriage.) I even met Imran Khan once, possibly the most shockingly good-looking man I have ever met, though I was never a great fan of his for some reason. But by far the greatest object of my athletic adoration has always been and remains Mohammad Ali, the greatest of all time.
Three of the most famous athletes of our time are Michael Jordan, Lance Armstrong, and Mohammad Ali. Jordan may or may not be the greatest basketball player of all time, but he undoubtably holds the highest value in the psychological economy of basketball fans as well as the general public. Armstrong probably is the greatest cyclist of all time, but bicycling itself has never been very glamorous a sport. Mohammad Ali’s place in the history of boxing is a subject of neverending counterfactual debate of the “What if Tyson and Ali fought when each was in his prime?” variety, but he, of course, more than any other athlete, seized our collective imagination in a way that far transcends his prodigious pugilistic prowess. (We are not similarly obsessed with Pete Sampras, or Ian Thorpe, or Tiger Woods, or Carl Lewis, or Wayne Gretzky.) Why is this? What is it about these three individuals that has arrested our attentions so?
Maybe it is this: each of them is the symbolic embodiment of an age-old human dream. In the case of Michael Jordan, it is the dream of flight. The desire to defy the clutch of gravity is as old as human history: to escape the poverty of Earth’s surface for the rich freedom of three-dimensional air, to have an eagle’s-eye view of tiny Terra. And catching air is what Michael Jordan could do better than any other human, ever. He could float. He could soar. He could fly. He is about as close as anyone in real-life has gotten to leaping tall buildings in a single bound. And he made it look graceful. (High jumpers may be able to jump higher, but the Fosbury Flop is not very balletic; no poetry can attach to a movement correctly called a “flop” onto a mattress. Hop, skip, jump, leap, flop, plop, whatever; it ain’t flight.) On the contrary, Jordan follows an upright and, like all objects in a gravitational field, lovely parabolic arch after leaving the ground. As he approaches the top of the arch, his vertical speed gradually slows to zero, and for an infinitesimal but seemingly-infinite instant he is suspended high in the air, floating in space, frozen in time, legs splayed underneath or treading air, arms reaching up, one hand cocked underneath the ball ready to propel it on its own parabolic path to the basket while the other supports it lightly from the side. This is the moment one remembers, not the moment when the ball inevitably clears the rim. Oddly enough, it is only in flight that Jordan is an extraordinarily compelling figure. Closer to the ground, he often looks awkward with his tongue stuck out of the side of his mouth, and despite his ubiquitous presense in every medium by way of commerical endorsements, he retains an air of shyness. Off the court he seems not very articulate or particularly interesting in any other way.
Lance Armstrong embodies the dream of immortality, and he does it doubly. Unlike car racing, or even the 100-meter dash, bicycle racing is not about speed. It is about endurance. It is about lasting forever. It is about not dying. And Armstrong never dies. He is known to break away from the pack of cyclists behind him, making them expend stupendous effort in catching up, which he encourages by slowing down just a bit, then repeating this process again and again until the buildup of lactic acid in the legs of his hapless competitors causes such excruciating pain that they freeze up. They die. He doesn’t. And he didn’t even die when his testicular cancer metastasized to his lungs and brain. He kept going. He is the ultimate Energizer Bunny, and keeping on going and going is what the dream of immortality is all about. If you can come back from death’s door and win the Tour de France seven times in a row, you are about as immortal as can humanly be. The other interesting thing about Armstrong is his body. Unlike Jordan and Ali, whose stature, size, and shape immediately indicate their difference from you and me, Lance looks like my local pizza-delivery boy (well, I guess there is that bicycle connection). We all feel like we could be Lance Armstrong if we just tried hard enough. There is nothing on the surface to indicate that this man has a heart that is a third bigger than the rest of us, that it can beat at more than 200 beats per minute, that his cancer-scarred lungs can take in more oxygen than a healthy male twice his size, that his muscle-efficiency is 8 percent greater than average, or that his muscles produce half as much lactic acid as normal people. He is ideally built to do what he does. Lance is gonna’ live forever, like we all wish we could.
Mohammad Ali’s most famous fight of all, the Rumble-in-the-Jungle against George Foreman in 1974 in Zaire, is the athletic world’s most powerful instantiation of the David versus Goliath story. It speaks to our dream of the triumph of cunning and skill over brute strength. And this is what Ali’s life has been about, inside and outside of the ring. He is not a big boxer, as heavyweights go, but he more than makes up in speed and nimbleness what he lacks in size. Ali’s hold on our psyches is such that I can remember my mother, who knew and cared nothing about sports, not only getting up in the middle of the night to watch the Rumble-in-the-Jungle live via-satellite, but very earnestly saying a prayer for Mohammad Ali to win. If you have not seen the documentary When We Were Kings, please do yourself a favor: buy the DVD and watch it every Sunday as I used to do until I practically had it memorized. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were at the fight covering it as journalists, and comment on the fight looking back. There is music by James Brown and B.B. King, and there is the fight itself, along with delightful footage of Ali from before and after the fight, including his reciting some of his poetry, such as this bit to describe what he has been doing to train for the fight:
I wrestled with an alligator,
I tussled with a whale,
I have handcuffed lighting,
Thrown thunder in jail.
Yesterday, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean I make medicine sick!
The movie, and Ali’s story, is so moving that several of the people I have shown the film to have wept at the end, out of sheer joy and admiration for the man. At the time, Ali was a bit of a has-been fighter in his 30s while George Foreman was the new, young, invincible, 22-year-old heavyweight champion of the world. Foreman was built like a bull with the personality of a pitbull. He was taller, heavier, and had much greater reach than Ali. He was nothing like the amiable teddy bear of a guy-next-door we know so well now from commercials for his electric grill and Midas mufflers. And the sheer force of his punches had already become mythic. The bookmakers gave him 7-to-1 odds againts Ali. Ali didn’t care. Mohammad Ali crushed him in an 8th round knockout in a blindingly fast flurry of punches (see picture), having tired him out earlier in the fight by inventing what we now know as the rope-a-dope trick (leaning back against the ropes in a defensive stance and letting your opponent pound you until he or she gets exhausted). Ali became world champ for the third time that day.
But Ali is such a colossus that his herculean boxing accomplishments can only explain a small part of his appeal. I cannot think of another human being as physically beautiful, as talented, as intelligent, as charming, as articulate, as funny, vivacious, and brave, and as morally principled, as Mohammad Ali. Mohammad Ali has been the greatest international symbol of standing up to overwhelming might that the sports world has ever produced. He is the modern-day David that took on the Goliaths of racism, the U.S. government, even the Nation of Islam–after he broke with it. He gave hope and strength to those who opposed the Vietnam war and American imperialism, not only within America, but everywhere. He refused to run away to Canada to avoid the draft and faced the prospect of jail instead. He was stripped of his title and was not allowed to box for years. He suffered and sacrificed for his beliefs, and he never gave in. Ali is the only sports figure ever with Nelson Mandela-like dignity. As George Plimpton puts it toward the end of When We Were Kings: “What a fighter. And what a man.”
I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly
My other recent Monday Musings:
Francis Crick’s Beautiful Mistake
The Man With Qualities
Special Relativity Turns 100
Vladimir Nabokov, Lepidopterist
Stevinus, Galileo, and Thought Experiments
Cake Theory and Sri Lanka’s President