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February 10, 2000

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When enough is not enough

Rohit Brijnath

Thank you Sergi Bubka. Thank you for the pole vaults, for the flights of madness, you took us on; thank you for those nights, in hushed and raucous stadiums when you broke the myth that man can't touch the heavens or kiss the stars; thank you for giving Oxford and every other dictionary a definition of "athletic excellence".

But thank you most of all, for sliding that pole into its case, putting it into the garage, taking a bow and giving it all up.

Because, let's face it, there's nothing more pitiful than an athlete going on too long, becoming a mere caricature of what he once was, an ambling chaser of youthful ghosts.

Dan O'Brien Well, actually there is. It's the sight of an athlete coming back, playing on memory, a slow-motion tragedy hard to watch.

Last week, I read that Dan O'Brien, the decathlete, an event whose winner was once considered the greatest athlete in the world, was returning from injury. At 34. With the words "I believe I still have a few years left in me."

Maybe yes; possibly not.

How come athletes don't know when they've had enough, how come they go blind to what they see in the mirror, deaf to what they hear from others; how come athletes who get high on the flavour of victory, get used to the taste of defeat?

Never have I prayed more for a world record than Kapilís in Test cricket. At least you knew then he'd quit, that the self-inflicted embarrassment would end. It was like an Ambassador engine in a Rolls Royce chassis. It's why Sunny was smart. With him, after that last innings of 96 against Pakistani in Bangalore, we asked "Why", not "Why not". It's the way it should be.

The very idea of greatness, or in some cases genius, includes an athlete's detailed understanding of themselves, specifically with regard to their bodies.

Bjorn Borg Borg knew his greatness was fashioned through speed and stamina, Muhammad Ali through his ability to dance, to manoeuvre, to jab, to make boxing look more like ballet than a fighting art. By exactly that logic, they should have known first when their bodies began to fail, when Borg was a split second late to the shot, when Ali knew he was taking punches he once evaded.

But what voices spoke to them, ordering them to ignore the obvious?

In 1991, almost a decade after he retired, when tennis, even my grandmother knew, was faster, more athletic, when the ball exploded off new-age rackets like a Berettaís bullet, Borg came back. In Monte Carlo. Why?

In the book 'The Courts of Babylon', this is what Ion Tiriac said then: "What does Borg have? What did he ever have? He has a forehand and a backhand. No volley. No drop shot. No overhead. No serve. Not on clay. What he did have was speed, but now he is 34 years old. If he is only five percent slower, he will be twenty percent less effective."

Borg lost. To Jordi Arrese. 2-6, 3-6. The comeback was over.

When Ali returned from his ban, three years of his prime gone, he learnt two things. First, that he could not dance anymore. That should have told him something. It didnĎt, because he learnt another thing: he could take a punch. The moment he fought George Foreman in 1974, bruised, beaten, bloodied (you couldnít see his kidneys) but not beaten, he should have gone. And I would have cried.

I did anyway. When he fought Larry Holmes in 1980.

As Sylvester Stallone was quoted as saying then, "It was like watching an autopsy on a man who's still alive." Fights create adrenalin surges; this one was like a funeral. It well could have been. Aliís former doctor Ferdie Pacheco said, ďAli was a walking time bomb in that ring that night. He could have anything from a heart attack to a stroke to bleeding in the head."

Later Ali said, "I embarrassed myself. I fought like an old man who was washed up." How did he not know, were there no mirrors in his training camp? He was the most beautiful sporting sight I have ever seen; but the memory he left was another.

Muhammad Ali Ali said before the fight began, "I thought I could win." So did Mark Spitz when he returned, and Sugar Ray Leonard, and a thousand others.

What were they thinking? That they were immortal, and even Anno Domini was an opponent to be bested? Perhaps it is because the mind refuses to believe the body. The self-belief, the desire, still lingers, but the legs donít respond.

Perhaps it because they see Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46, and Roger Milla dancing at the corner post, a white-haired warrior of sorts, or Jimmy Connors hip-thrusting his way to the US Open semi finals when touching 40, or Stanley Matthews slipping down the wing to win the FA Cup in his 39th year, or Ken Rosewall winning the Australian Open at 37.

This could be me, they say to the mirror. And the mirror lies back.

Perhaps because they donít know what else to do (thank God we have a seniors tennis tour, a seniors golf tour...), that at the prime of human existence, the mid 30s, they wear 'washed up' labels. That that morning when they have nothing to wake up to doesnít come too soon.

It is the portrait of an athlete lying to himself, and it the cruellest sight in sport.

For them, there is always one last win, one final match. One more feel of the canvas beneath the feet, the ropes behind the back; one last injection of the sportsmanís heroin, that surge of adrenaline that lets you float; one last look at a crowded field where only one name, yours, rests on a stadiumís lips; one last day of being someone. To be the wanted present not the forgotten future.

As Tiriac said then, "Borg came back because he discovered there is no life after death."

Dan O'Brien is about to find out if that's true.

Rohit Brijnath

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