“I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments.
The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
Earl Warren, 14th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America
This post is dedicated to the memory of Joe Frazier, the Olympic and world champion boxer, who died this week, the first man to defeat Muhammad Ali in ‘the fight of the century’ in the year of my birth. It will come as no surprise to anyone who follows me on Twitter, or reads this blog, or has ever had a conversation with me, that I love sport. My interest in some has diminished over time, while others have grown into obsessions. Some loves, however, are constants: cricket and the round ball game, soccer, football, call it what you will.
Let me be clear: I am an armchair sports fan par excellence. I cannot run out of sight on a dark night, as my Dad would say; and my body attests. In a family where generations of sporting trophies were displayed throughout homes, my contribution is a small silver-plated medal: dux of my primary school, 1983. I readily admit to envying the seeming ease with which my father played tennis ambidextrously and went to the beach every morning to run and swim, big night before regardless; my brother competing at state and national level in multiple individual sports; a sister who rowed surfboats.
I may not have won the dust-gathering trophies, but I love that as a gangly girl who could bowl overarm, I was always picked to play Joel Garner in caravan park cricket. It was the ultimate icebreaker with kids I met across India in 2007. I love a day at the races, wearing hats and watching horse and jockey round the straight; I cherish the many nights spent stalking angles on the pool table of my local in East Dulwich, London. My hands clasped together, involuntarily as a Sydney Swan lines up for a shot at goal, the involuntary ‘YEEEES!’ as I leap and cheer from the O’Reilly Stand; the joy of watching a perfectly-delivered cross headed past the keeper (unless the keeper is Mark Schwarzer); the tension, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of a long rally in a Grand Slam final.
Whenever an Arts Minister trots out the statistic that more Australians attend a ‘cultural’ institution each year than a sporting match, I wince. Who decreed sport is not cultural? Is it not a slight twist in our colonial kowtowing to label as philistines those Australians visiting Mother England who choose the Theatre of Dreams over the Old Vic? I don’t believe sport has to be an either / or – even an ‘and’; love it, loathe it, let one, another or all leave you cold. It doesn’t have to be The Ashes versus Ashkenazy; Cadel winning the Tour de France or a tour de force by Cate. Why are people confounded by others’ enjoyment of some, or all of these things, and more? People who watch the boxing documentary, When We Were Kings may also think of the detritus of a State left by an unhinged dictator; those who read For Whom The Bell Tolls might learn more about the complex rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid (it’s not all Republican vs Nationalist); we can mourn Ayrton Senna, not only for his brilliance on the F1 track, but for his philanthropy; we remember the image of St Kilda’s Nicky Winmar lifting his guernsey, pointing to his brown skin, defiant in the face of overt racism, just as we celebrate Charles Perkins and the Freedom Riders for returning to Moree, unbowed, after being denied entry to its public swimming pool, forcing council to lift the 40-year-old ban.
… so I reach, in a not-so-neat segue, back to Joe Frazier, and his great rival, Ali. Then Cassius Clay, Ali threw his Olympic gold medal in the Ohio River after being refused service in a restaurant and seemed to throw his career away when he refused induction into the United States army. Reviled and admired for his overt protest, Ali symbolised the ‘Black Power’ zeitgeist. Less loquacious than Ali, Frazier lobbied for his right to box to be reinstated; and refused to contest Ali’s championship belt after it was stripped from him for saying no to Uncle Sam in 1967. Imagine the hatred, the hurt burnished into ‘Smokin Joe’s’ heart when ‘The Greatest’ called him an ‘Uncle Tom’, at a press conference before their ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ fight. Ali, whose words were as powerful as his punch, wanted Frazier to be seen as the ‘white man’s boxer’. It was a low point in a personal enmity between two men raised in the segregated South and a deeply political one, more impactful than the inanity passed off as political comment today.
One final tribute. On learning of Frazier’s passing, another of his great fighting foes, George Foreman, simply tweeted:
Good night, Joe Frazier. I love you dear friend.
Poetry, in less than 140 characters, from a man who was integral to the, ‘apex of pedigree fighting in which each man would not give an inch until they were dead.’ ~ Mike Tyson.