Life On and Off the Field

punch Full of relevance
As Muhammad Ali turns 70, his life and the way he lived it continues to inspire us
BY m a NISH a DHIk a rY


was 12 years old when I saw Muhammad Ali in action, on live TV, for the first time. The year was 1996 and Ali, already an unnerving picture of Parkinson’s worst effects, was 55. I had heard a lot about him, of course, especially from my father, a social conservative who used to call Mike Tyson, when he was still in contention, “an ugly fighter”. (When Tyson was jailed for rape, all my father did was nod in distaste.) But, other than a few clips of the man caught on a rented video cassette and muffled, strength-inducing chants of “Ali, Ali” heard during mock fights with cousins, I’d never really watched the champ until the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Atlanta and after. On Jan. 17 this year, when the greatest sportsperson of the 20th century turned 70, I revisited the occasion by YouTubeing a video of him lighting the Olympic torch in 1996. It was moving to watch the once-controversial, deeply polarising and banned boxer earn the right reserved for America’s greatest living athlete. Recent reports have Ali, who has struggled with Parkinson’s

than within. His conversion to Islam, the apocryphal tale of how, deeply hurt by segregation, he flung his 1960 Rome Olympic gold into the Ohio river, his refusal to be conscripted into the U.S. military (“I ain’t got no quarrel

He was famous in India too, where most people, including my father, never saw him fight. This was mainly because most households did not have a TV set till the ’80s. Moreover, since 50 percent of the current population

S A JJA D H USS A IN /A F P (B IN D R A); M AT T H e W L e WIS /G e T T y IM AG e S (MIR Z A); JA SPeR J UIN eN /G e T T y IM AG e S (M e SSI); DA NIeL B eReH U L A K /G e T T y IM AG e S (CO U R T ); S A M G ReeN WO O D/G e T T y IM AG e S (S T RI C K eR)

disease for years, on his deathbed. Yet, S portS I lluStrated photographer Neil Liefer, who photographed him at his Arizona home recently, “found the fighter alert and cooperative”. Back in 1968, the US government had a different opinion. Out on bail for resisting the US Army draft and banned from boxing for three-and-a-half years, Ali spoke at 200 colleges that year. In one of his sterling speeches he said, “I’m expected to go overseas to help free people in South Vietnam and at the same time, my people here are being brutalised; hell no! I would like to say to those of you who think I have lost so much: I have gained everything. I have peace of heart; I have a clear, free conscience. And I am proud. I wake up happy, I

What we need, perhaps, is a sportsperson of ALi’s mAke And meAning who transcends sport...
go to bed happy, and if I go to jail, I’ll go to jail happy.” His anti-establishment convictions made him so popular that Ali was once considered more popular outside the US with them Viet Cong...”) plus the more straightforward acclaim he received for being the most glorious, most beautiful of fighters in the ring made him the blue-eyed black boy of the world. is under the age of 25, that a majority of Indians could not watch Ali in his prime in the 1960s and ’70s is more of a generational shortcoming. But we heard about him alright as he floats in our

sporting subconscious along with greats like Pele, Bjorn Borg and Don Bradman. But what our generation still doesn’t understand clearly, perhaps, is his relevance in an India charred by a conflict of ideas. While many in the US were taking part in the celebrations leading to Ali’s 70th birthday, many of us in India were debating the Salman Rushdie affair. The author of The Satanic Verses had to call off his plan to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival following an uproar from several Muslim organisations that find his 1988 novel “blasphemous”. The government and its security apparatus came across as anti-Rushdie colluders who lacked the gumption and the will to ensure the festival, Rushdie and freedom of speech were protected from threats of violence. Even the last-minute video address was scrapped, prompting Rushdie to describe the happenings as a “black farce”. W hile the incident has no apparent relation to Ali or his personal beliefs, the debate raging in the aftermath is a vague reminder that every country is accorded moments in which to redeem its idea. The turmoil of the ’60s for the US was one such moment. Ali, as Noam Chomsky said, put the fact that Vietnam was about poor people in the United States being forced by rich people in the United States to kill poor people in Vietnam very simply, in ways that people could understand. India has just been witness to a year of anti-corruption protests. With the Rushdie stir, it is now questioning the establishment’s traditional reluctance to take a stand against attacks on self-expression. What we need, perhaps, is a sportsperson of Ali’s make and meaning, who transcends the boundary of sport and mirrors the times we live in, someone who looks at life for what it is and fights for the right to call a spade a spade. In the ring, and outside. ±

Who’s Hot Who’s Not
Bindra tastes win The diminutive shooter started the Olympic year by winning gold at the Asian Championships in Doha on Jan. 14. Abhinav Bindra won the honour in the men’s 10m air rifle event, finishing with 701.1 points and pushed China’s Qinan Zhu and Tao Wang to the second and third spots, respectively. Bindra had already qualified for the London Olympics. warner slams ton Australia’s David Warner added insult to India’s injuries Down Under on Jan. 13 by slamming a 69-ball hundred, the fourth fastest Test century. Australia went on to win the match by an innings and 37 runs, their third straight humiliation of an out-ofsorts Indian Test team, that hasn’t won a Test on foreign soil since beating the West Indies in June 2011. messi Bags top award The Barcelona and Argentine forward won the Ballon d’Or on Jan. 9 for the third consecutive time. Messi beat teammate Xavi Hernandez and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo to take home the world’s best footballer crown. Messi, 24, became only the fourth player to win the trophy thrice, along with Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Michel Platini. Kenny gets to the top British cyclist Jason Kenny was promoted to world individual sprint champion after France’s Gregory Bauge was suspended for drug test infringements. The UCI, the sport’s governing body, stripped Bauge of the title he had won in March 2011. Kenny, 23, had beaten Sir Chris Hoy en route to the semifinal. He’d also won the team sprint title at the Beijing Olympics. stricKer starts with a win American golfer Steve Stricker won the first event of the calendar at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on Jan. 10. He shot a four-under 69 during the final round to hold off defending champion Jonathan Byrd and Martin Laird. Coming into the event, Stricker was the top-ranked player in the field at No. 6 in the official golf rankings. RefeRees in the Ruin The ePL has forever been under the scanner for poor refereeing but two instances in the space of a few days sparked the debate yet again. While Chris Foy sent off Man City captain vincent Kompany for a lunging tackle on Nani, referee Lee Mason did not even book Liverpool’s Glen Johnson for a similar tackle on Joleon Lescott in a Carling Cup match. MiRza suffeRs heaRtbuRn Sania Mirza, India’s only player in the singles draw of the Australian Open, crashed out in the first round, losing 4–6, 2–6 to Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova. Mirza was making a return after a knee injury and lasted an hour and 28 minutes. Her doubles campaign with Russia’s elena vesnina was also cut short in the semifinal by the Russian pair of Svetlana Kuznetsova and vera Zvonareva. sutil dRaws his swoRd Formula One driver Adrian Sutil will stand trial at the end of January for a nightclub fight in China, where he was accused of attacking and injuring with glass the owner of an F1 team. The former Force India driver is charged with causing grievous bodily harm to Renault’s team executive, eric Lux, who was cut in the neck and needed two dozen stitches. CouRt faCes gay wRath Tennis legend Margaret Court found herself at the centre of a storm after she told a newspaper that advocating same-sex marriages promoted “unhealthy” and “unnatural” unions. After a public backlash, activists called for people to unfurl “rainbow flags” at Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena. Her comments were also criticised by Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. thoMas feels the sting Former professional golfer Steve Thomas was arrested in central Florida as a suspect after an underage sex sting operation. Thomas, who played in 19 events on the Champions Tour in 2009, was charged with soliciting sex from a minor via the Internet. According to the police, Thomas and other suspects travelled to a place in Osceola County to have sex with a child.

14 | S p o r t S I l l u S t r at e D | FEB RUA RY 2012

F EB RUA RY 2012 | S p o r t S I l l u S t r at e D | 15

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