Only one winner - but sport's not a loser
There have always been 'untouchables' - from Joe Louis and Arnold Palmer to Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters. Read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch TV and someone will be saying today's serial winners are bad for the game. Kevin Mitchell disagrees
Sunday July 14, 2002
Those lucky enough to have seen Joe Louis box will tell you he was the finest heavyweight champion of them all. For 12 years, from the 1930s, through the war years and for a short time afterwards, Joe was the king of the world, dispatching bums and contenders with a right cross of chilling simplicity.
In those more innocent times, too, Don Bradman was acknowledged without the slightest demur as the best batsman cricket had seen, or would ever see again. For a while, in the 1950s and 1960s, Arnold Palmer was golf, to be overtaken by Jack Nicklaus. Tennis had Rod Laver. Motor racing had Fangio. Then came Ali, in separate incarnations even, the supreme entertainer.
In every case, these special athletes brought their sports to peaks of popularity. When Bradman was batting, cricket grounds were full - and they emptied just as quickly once he was dismissed. A ticket to a Joe Louis fight was so hard to come by that fans resigned themselves to listening on the radio - and would tell you later they saw every punch. Palmer it was, with his Arnie's Army, who made golf a television phenomenon. Laver, the freckled face of tennis, was in the vanguard that dragged the sport into the world spotlight. Fangio made you believe a bus driver could fly. And you definitely thought Ali could fly.
Why is it, then, that some consider Tiger Woods, the obvious successor to Palmer and Nicklaus, as 'too good'? If he wins The Open at Muirfield next weekend, as he probably will, commentators will be divided again between those who salivate at the prospect of his completing the hitherto unattained grand slam of four majors in the same year, and those who yearn for someone to dent his supremacy, to put the brakes on what has become a predictable, if breathtaking, progression to absolute dominance of a sport.
Similarly, why do the Williams sisters have to apologise for being so much better than their opponents on the women's tennis circuit? Their final at Wimbledon was everything you could ask for as a climax to the sport's showpiece tournament: tough, competitive and full of rasping power. Whispers of collusion were as mean-spirited as they were wrong, the work of those inside and outside tennis who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that the sisters have refined their talent to a level others simply cannot match.
It seems we are bored with perfection, though. Having grown fat in front of our televisions, sated by wondrous deeds, we are complacent. Like emperors, we call for more...until we've had our fix of excellence. When they had to leave their house to witness great sporting occasions, people treasured their heroes. Now we zap the zapper like goggle-eyed junkies, moving from one genius to another, demanding to be entertained.
There is another side to the argument. What defines a great champion is a great challenger and, although golf is littered with several wonderful players, not one of them consistently gives Woods a meaningful argument. But imagine he were not there. It is not just the prospect of David Duval sending us to sleep that is depressing, but golf generally would suffer. Sponsors have queued up not just for Tiger's endorsement since his arrival and have made a lot of other people very happy, from his fellow golfers to television executives. He is in the peculiar position of having transcended his sport.
Similarly, the Williams sisters, with the crazy dad and the orange-haired mum, have brought a rare and fascinating story to a sport in desperate need of rejuvenation. With the fading of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, tennis had no flag-bearer. There was a collection of good players with unfamiliar names, but not many with the personality and sheer intensity of Venus or Serena. Take them out of tennis and the game loses a lot. Wimbledon might survive on the annual outbreak of Henmania for a couple of years, and Lleyton Hewitt looks to be leading a new band of champions to replace the old, but it is the women's game where the potential for drama lies now.
It is harder to make a case for Michael Schumacher because he is the best in a sport that is struggling for credibility. Ferrari have produced a car so much better than the others that the Formula One season is over after a few races. Talking with Eddie Irvine a couple of years ago, when he played deputy to Michael's sheriff, it was plain the Ulsterman was fed up banging around the track at fractionally slower speeds than his team-mate, knowing that was his designated role, a glorified test driver. Not much has changed and even diehard fans might soon tire of watching exhibition racing - even if Schumacher is the best driver since Fangio.
There is another, more sinister, side to the debate on dominance: race. The day Will Carling called Jonah Lomu a freak - after the All Black had trampled over England's finest in the semi-final of the 1995 World Cup - was a sad one for sport. He meant the observation as a compliment, no doubt, and would be offended if it were construed as racist, but the then England captain inadvertently painted the outsize Maori winger as something of a genetic peculiarity. The same word was used during Wimbledon when a BBC radio reporter called the Williams sisters 'a freak show'.
A couple of years ago, the American journalist Jon Entine addressed the subject from a quasi-scientific angle in a book with the provocative title, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid to Talk About It . It created a predictable storm, which pleased his publishers, but it did little for rational discussion.
You had to ask yourself why he was fascinated by the root genetic causes of athletics dominance in the first place. Images of German health farms and breeding grounds in the 1930s sprang to mind, with Aryan supermen and women dashing past the sub-standard stock of lesser races...And then Jesse Owens hits the tape, sails over the sandpit, holds aloft his medals, exploding myth and prejudice.
Moreover, Entine's book gave the bigots ammunition: if a white man loses to a black man, it doesn't count because the black man has a physical advantage. Beneath that sorry assumption is another: the black man might be physically advanced but not in any other way.
Entine wasn't alone. He pointed to a study at University College London that identified 'high performance genes', a sequence of DNA that controls metabolic efficiency.
'The British scientists,' he wrote, 'believe that 90 per cent of the performance of athletes could be determined by their genetic make-up, although no research has yet been done on which population groups might be lucky enough to have high-performance genes.'
Give them time, Jon. They've been looking since the 1930s.
All of this scrambling around the gene pool does little for the ethics of sport because the ultimate conclusion, if you are to accept the findings, is that there is no point in competing. But, if you retain even a sliver of innocence, it is more comforting, surely, to celebrate rather than denigrate. When they were still talking, the Sheffield trainer Brendan Ingle said of his flashy little featherweight, Naseem Hamed, that people should appreciate him while he was around because it would be a long time before they saw anyone quite like him again.
And so it was with Joe. Babe Ruth. And The Don. Sugar Ray Robinson. Fangio. Ali. Carl Lewis. The Michaels, Johnson and Jordan. Ed Moses. Sergei Bubka. Navratilova. And all the others. Every one of them human. Every one of them fallible and, sooner or later, beaten. There will be others, each with his or her own amazing story. How could anyone be bored with all of that?
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