Of sporting heroes and living their dream, again

One great thing about sport is the dreaming about it and anointing heroes among those you have never seen.

Bob Beamon in action at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

The advantage of dreaming about sport is that you can pick your dream competitions quite easily. I am not talking of cricket here — the sport where you can actually monetise your dreams, as the advertisers and marketing men keep reminding us on television regularly. What about an all-time dream team? Here, off the top of my head, is a list of events I would pay to see live (some of them are available on YouTube, but that’s not the same thing):

1. Muhammad Ali’s fight against George Foreman, and his three fights against Joe Frazier

2. Pele at the 1970 World Cup

3. Bob Beamon’s long jump at the 1968 Olympics

4. Victor Trumper’s 1902 series against England

5. George Best in any of the matches he played

6. Chris Evert v Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon

7. The Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky title fight (in chess) in Reykjavik

8. Dhyan Chand and the Indian team at the 1936 Olympics

9. Prakash Padukone winning the All-England in 1980

10. Rod Laver at Wimbledon 1968

11. Roger Federer at Wimbledon

12. Ayrton Senna in action

One of the great things about sport, wrote the Australian cricketer Richie Benaud, is taking part. The second great thing about sport, I think, is the dreaming about it and anointing heroes among those you have never seen. Somehow those fights by Ali, and in fact the list above, are all frozen in time. Books have been written about them, reports of their deeds composed with care. As the sportsmen grew older they carried their personal histories around with them. You saw it in their eyes, in their walk.

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My heroes growing up were Tiger Pataudi and Gundappa Viswanath — men I had the good fortune to see in action, and heroes who, contrary to cliche, did not have feet of clay. After all, not all sporting heroes are good men or women; some are the type you wouldn’t cross the street to shake hands with. Yet they have a role to play in the maturing of a young life.

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Unhappy is the land that needs a hero.” Unhappy too is he who doesn’t have a hero. Or doesn’t see the need for one.

In his A Book of Heroes, the writer Simon Barnes says, “The job of a hero in sport — the reason our minds, rooted in archetypes, create for each of us a personal collection of heroes — is to make sense of life, to make some kind of order from a crazy and chaotic world.”

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Those who think he is exaggerating need only to look at the few live events taking place during the coronavirus pandemic. When you look at the number of people affected by the virus, and the anxiety in the short term, then such events do provide some kind of order in a chaotic world we do not easily understand. Tell me who your heroes are, and I will tell you what kind of person you are.