Monday, October 26, 2009
The 10 Greatest Sports Moments
in the Last Half Century
Maybe tops overall but not on this list.
MORE SERENDICITY. There will be time to get to the earthshaking stuff, but I'm prompted to do this entry today for several reasons. There were the posts on Victor Davis Hanson's repudiation of popular culture, specifically including sports. There was a weekend of college and professional football -- and major league baseball -- that offered glamorous spectacle (Patriots-Buccaneers in London), heartbreaking close calls (Tennessee-Alabama), truly great collisions of great teams (Vikings-Steelers), underdog triumphs (Arizona-NY Giants) and fatal failures (Angels-Yankees), as well as the usual unfolding stories of character that won't be resolved today or tomorrow but are nevertheless fascinating to watch episode by episode (Jimmy Claussen of Notre Dame, Terrell Pryor of Ohio State, and Matt Sanchez of the NY Jets.) There was also IP's post on the Obama administration's attack on Fox News, which cleverly used the Ali-Foreman fight as an example of an over-confident bully who punches himself out before the real big moment arrives.
I could have swallowed the temptations of everything but the last incitement. It's been a couple years or more since I went looking for the three sporting events I used to bore friends of mine in the Seventies with the declaration that they were the three supernally great individual performances I had been privileged to witness live (on television, of course): Ali-Foreman, Secretariat at the Belmont, and Franz Klammer at the Olympic downhill. I came up short then. This time I found them all. The video isn't uniformly good, but at least it's there. Which means the events themselves have not vanished into the ether as I had feared.
The discovery excited me. Many observers act as if YouTube is some kind of worthless warehouse of kids behaving badly, if not obscenely. That is its outer shell, to be sure, like a repulsive scab that covers a core of deep value. YouTube in reality is a kind of sensory encyclopedia, accumulating sights and sounds, nuggets of pure gold, from the entire span of human history. The amount of edifying stuff in there is prodigious, more valuable for the fact that it isn't strictly filtered and refined into routine, packaged History Channel fare. The contributors are the passionate, the ones who care the most and want to share the most. Which means that it provides the unexpected boon of being not an artfully edited time capsule but an actual time machine, operated by people with frequently dirty or damaged goggles that are nevertheless directly looking at or responding to the events themselves. I LOVE it.
It's subjective history on the fly, scraps, collages, inspirations, confessions of obsession, tributes, and an ocean of copyright violations.
[As a writer with copyrighted material myself, I can tell you my own position is simple. Borrow, steal, use all you want. Just mention where you got it in the first place if it's not too inconvenient, so that your audience can find their way if they like it to the complete version, fully formatted. They will look for it if they like it enough. The 'artists' who think they can, or should, control access and use in the Internet age are not artists at all; they're businessmen. I'd much rather have a creation of mine acquire mindshare than revenue. End of digression.]
So anyway. I came up with a list of the Ten Greatest Sports Moments. Not your Greatest Sports Moments. Mine. They're not in order of greatness but reverse chronological, starting from now and working back fifty years. I'll justify each entry unless I don't happen to feel like it. Here we go.
1. The 2008 Olympic Freestyle Relay in Swimming. Not because of what's-his-name, but the other fellow. The anchor who swam the swim of a lifetime, or two lifetimes. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Dr. Hanson. It was -- what's the word? -- Olympian.
2. This one's from the world of spoiled, corrupt, professional prima donnassquared. The Super Bowl. You know which one. It even involves one of the worst of the narcisssist prima donnas. But has it ever occurred to the condemnationists that participation in a transcendent event might be part of the divine plan they subscribe to for other people? Because this was a transcendent event -- and a lesson in humility for some 45 other narcissists and their several million fans who sorely needed it.
As a Philadelphia sports fan, I regularly have to listen to WIP 610 SportsTalk, where there's a daily idiot who insists that neither golf nor motor racing is sport at all because golfing and driving don't involve actual "athletic ability." They require only "hand-eye coordination," meaning, I suppose, something akin to what's needed to excel at darts, pool, and video games. I despise that guy. I'll give you my definition of athletic ability later. Until then, here's:
3. The 1997 Masters. The Grand Entrance of Tiger Woods. His first win in a major. At Augusta, which resisted (as I can't prove but do accept) the first participation by an African-American golfer just as that country club (well, isn't it?) had always angled against African-American membership. What a triumphant display of talent, resolve, and character. And talent. Did I forget to mention genius? And character?
4. My most dubious entry, I suppose. Not a triumph but a catastrophe. The 1981 crash of Danny Ongais at the Indy 500. BUT. I knew about Ongais long before he raced at Indy. He began as a drag racer, known as "The Hawaiian." Nothing about drag racing prepares you for road-racing except fearlessness at speed. Unless total fearlessness might be a kind of, uh, athletic ability, the capacity to perform coldly under circumstances most mortal men would run away from. The importance of this clip is what happened a few weeks later, which is not yet recorded on YouTube. Ongais's leg was pulverized during the Indy crash, almost to powder. Yet a few weeks later he was hoisted into an Indy car with a cage around his leg reminiscent of the Hellraiser villain, pins EVERYWHERE (can't prove this part though I remember the reporting) in order to do a few rehabilitative turns at another track; he broke the lap record the second time around. The next part I also can't prove, though I saw it on television. In his first Indy race back after the crash, Ongais kissed the wall again, bounced lightly off it and passed another car on the same straightaway. I saw it. He was CRAZY. The way most champions at anything are crazy. He's probably dead or in prison by now, but he might be my favorite on this list regardless.
5. This one you all know. But are your memories of the event itself or of the movie? Yeah, I liked the movie, too. But here's the real 1980 Miracle on Ice in all its bad-video glory.
6. I witnessed the Ali-Foreman fight live on HBO. I didn't get to see the third Ali-Frazier fight in Manila at the time because it was an extortionate pay-per-view deal and I was too poor to pay. Thus, I read all about it, in gruesome detail, before I ever got to see it -- the early rounds to Ali, the punishing middle rounds to Frazier until it looked after the tenth like Ali was exhausted and beaten. Followed by the greatest late-round comeback by any heavyweight in boxing history, which you can see here and here. But do judge for yourself. I was always an Ali fan. I listened to his first title fight in 1963 on a transistor radio under the covers while my parents thought I was asleep. I was the only one in my fifth grade class who was for the upstart Cassius Clay and thought he would beat the dreaded Sonny Liston. So I've never been exactly neutral on the subject.
7. The event itself was better than the video, but at least the video is here. Call this one the "Victory of the Overdog." Klammer was the favorite to win the downhill in the 1976 Olympics. But he got a bad draw in terms of order. By the time he skied, the course was torn up, the temperature was turning other skiers' tracks into icy ruts, and the times had been deteriorating as a result. But Klammer was Ongais on skis -- he raced not at the nine-tenths of his competitors but at ten-tenths of his ability. The fuzziness of this video makes it hard to see just how beyond the edge he seemed to be throughout his run, but 'beyond' is exactly the right word. Why else would I have remembered it for so long? In almost the same terms as this...?
8. The Triple Crown had become a distant memory by the time of Secretariat. Everyone was used to Kentucky Derby, yes, Preakness, yes... Belmont Stakes, awwwwww. Then came this. Take a look at the steady incremental retreat of the camera as television coverage tries to keep at least one other horse in the same frame with the greatest racehorse of all time. At the end, even that couldn't be done. Secretariat flies across the finish line all alone. Appropriately and magnificently alone.
9. I told you I'd cover fifty years worth. This is a remedial entry from 1966. Even those of you who think they properly appreciate Ali's greatness against Foreman and Frazier, and even those who are sure they understand the cost of his three year layoff after the title was stripped for political reasons, may not know what those three years really took away from him. (Yes, I know he chose, just as Ted Williams chose, to lose part of his career for conviction. And I admire Ted Williams's sacrifice more than Ali's by far, BUT...) Would Frazier ever have stood a chance against this fighter without the enforced idleness, legal ordeals, and rushed return to the ring of the opponent Frazier narrowly defeated in (Madison Square Garden's version of) the "Fight of the Century"? Not a chance. This fight footage is probably a record of the greatest heavyweight talent ever to appear in a boxing ring right before it got sat down for a huge chunk of its prime. Cleveland Williams was a knockout puncher, not a bum of the month. The Ali who decked Foreman and came back to stop Frazier in the 14th was no longer the prodigy of the Williams fight. He was just a champion who refused to lose, It cost him everything. (God, how I wish he'd retired after Manila... He won a lot more fights but the price of proving that the world's greatest boxer can take more punches than anyone else and still win is bitterly unacceptable. As much as I cheered Ali, I now grieve for Ali. But I include this clip because this is how I really remember him, dancing and invulnerable lightning.) I know. I'm old. Which is why Number 10:
10. I know the kids don't care about the duration of the Phillies revenge motive. But we do. The early odds put the Yankees at 2-1 to defeat the reigning World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. This final link is just a reminder that even the Yankees have had their George Foreman moments.
Just sports. Do you think? It's especially convenient for nerds and geeks like us to dismiss "jocks" as thoughtless, purely physical idiots who excel only at some combination of strength and coordination. Truth is, it's just not so. The physical talents do have to be there, but they don't result in these kinds of moments without a whole raft of other attributes, including brains, courage, character, perseverance, faith, focus, and, well, something like destiny. As with every other strain of human aspiration, the apex of "athletic ability" is synonymous with the apex of human achievement; i.e., the most achieved with ALL the resources given.
Something to think about? I think so.
Still feeling superior to the a__hole jocks, are we? Maybe not so much? The outer edge of the envelope is always pushed for a purpose, even when you think the only pressure is on the lickem-stickum. Complacency accrues to the interpreters, not the pushers.