When he died on June 3, there was perhaps no newspaper or television channel in the world that did not give Muhammad Ali prime space or time. In the fortnight since, the obituaries and tributes haven’t ceased.
The world was Ali’s arena. He was a charismatic champion and showman, touching the hearts of people everywhere — not just for what he achieved in the ring, but even more for what he stood outside of it.
Sportspersons have greater credibility vested in them than perhaps people from any other sphere. They can draw attention to a cause with more emphasis and belief. This is perhaps what prompted the question by Sandeep Dwivedi in his article (‘Sachin, unlike Ali’, The Indian Express, June 7) as to why leading sportspersons — particularly from India — haven’t been able to leave a similar impact.
It’s a provocative question, laced with some lament. In my (admittedly) cursory study, I find this symptomatic of star sportspersons from all countries and across time: They tend to be status quoists. Don Bradman in his playing days barely spoke about the pitiable state of aboriginals in Australia. His conservative politics also made him favour South Africa’s retention in international cricket while the world was trying to dismantle apartheid.
In fact, the biggest cricketers of the 1950s and 1960s did not actively speak out against racism and/or apartheid, two dominant themes of those decades. The change was influenced from outside, as it were. Marxist scholar and philosopher C.L.R. James used formidable polemics to unshackle the Caribbean from lingering colonialism and make Frank Worrell the first black captain of the West Indies. Elsewhere, commentator and writer John Arlott got Basil D’Olivera, a Cape coloured, out of South Africa into English cricket even as the white players of that country cringed and cribbed.
Greats of sport in the past century — Pele, Sobers, Laver, Borg, Jordan, Tendulkar, Federer, Bolt to name a few — haven’t shied away from charity, social work and causes related to their sport, but they haven’t been agents of change on a broader canvas. Some like Marat Safin, Miloslav Mecir and Garry Kasparov got into politics post retirement, but the only other major sportsperson I can recall who fought for massive change was Billie Jean King: For gender equality, and, later, for LGBT rights.
Why most sportspersons run shy of taking a strong or contentious position is intriguing. The biggest reason perhaps is sport at the highest level is all-consuming.
From very young they target excellence, milestones and livelihood which takes up most time and attention. This does not leave enough bandwidth for other matters. Rewards are tangible too (medals, titles, money) and getting bigger by the day, which succours the ambition to scale greater heights. To be fair, this takes human excellence a notch higher, which is laudable. On the adverse side this can become an end in itself. So-called “professionalism” and success can lull the need to do anything beyond the expected. Where bandwidth in understanding complexities of life exists, there may not be the ability to articulate a position cogently or indeed the stamina to struggle with it through over a period of time. Most of all, the fear of losing status, wealth et al can stymie the intent of the best.
Ali was a non-conformist. His boxing was built around sublime skills, but everything else about him was radically off-beat. He was a poet, a wit, an activist, and a philosopher. He was a rebel without pause when fighting his cause. His life hardly needs documentation again, but it is important to note that Ali was only 25 when he fought the powerful American government against disenfranchisement and repression and had his life turned topsy-turvy. To put it in perspective, this is three years younger than what Virat Kohli and Sania Mirza are today.
All this happened of course in the 1960s, a fertile time for dissent and rebellion. But history tells us troubling issues exist at all times: Contemporarily, for instance, there is terrorism, refugee migration (in Europe), caste, class and communalism faultlines (Indian subcontinent), climate change etc.
It is Ali’s acute sensibilities about his identity, the world he lived in and how he could change it which put him among the “rarest of the rare”. Nevertheless, it would be an odious comparison which undermines the contribution of other sports champions for what they are. Bradman lifted Australia out of the doldrums of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Tendulkar was the glue when India was being divided against itself in the early 1990s. Federer, Messi, Ronaldo make people forget their woes, which is not insignificant.
These champions have enriched our lives. But Ali distances himself from every other because his courage of conviction and a messianic zeal changed the narrative of not just American, but world history.
There was no template for this. There isn’t still.