Thursday, 9 July 2009

When Sporting Idols Were Human

Today when Real Madrid can spend 80 million pounds on a Portuguese footballer and 56 million on another Brazilian and can afford to pay them weekly wages on top that most of us can't dream of in a lifetime of working its almost hard to imagine that sport didn't always have such superstars. In sport there has always been athletes that have excelled above the rest but not all got the lifestyle that today's top athletes can expect.

I was just reading the story behind a new song written by Blair Douglas, a founding member of Runrig, the song is about a man named Giovanni "Johnny" Moscardini, who though born in Scotland in 1897 who went on to have a successful football career in Italy during the 20s and 30s. He became the top scorer for his club Pisa, before playing for the Italian national team where he was capped 9 times only to give it all up to help run his Uncle's ice cream shop back in Scotland. Somehow I just don't see Ronaldo or Kaka doing likewise. They might well send a cheque back home to a relative that needed some help but I doubt they'd be willing to give up their priviliged lifestyle to physically help the family business.

Yet sporting history is littered with interesting stories. Around the same time when Giovanni was playing football for Italy a Scottish runner was refusing to run his best event at the 1924 Olympics, the 100 meters, because it clashed with his religious beliefs. The heats were to be run on a Sunday so Eric Liddell, a devout protestant, felt that with it being the day of the Sabbath he could not compete. Instead he decided to train for the 400 meters, another event he was good at but was only expected to come 3rd in. A lot of today's 100 meter sprinters will double up on the 200 meters but it takes a special athlete to be able to compete at both 100 and 400 meters such is the differences in the discipline of the two events.

As it turned out, he not only won the race but set a new world record.

After his athletics career was over he continued his Missionary work in China, staying on to carry his work in 1941 when the British government advice was to leave due to the war between China & Japan. The Japanese later overtook the mission station with its members interned at the Weifang Internment Camp. Liddell died of a brain tumour hastened by malnourishment and overwork in 1945, months before the Japanese surrended. An unfortunate end for a man that was so admired by his peers for not only his athletic ability but for the man he was.

Its not only the athletes of the distant past that have interesting life stories, more recent athletes have done so as well. Take the story of amateur Scottish cyclist Graham Obree. When his bike shop failed with the burden of bad debts he decided that the way out of his problems was to beat the World hour velodrome record which had stood for 9 years. Unlike his English rival, Chris Boardman, who had access to the help of the UK Olympic team for coaching and sponsorship as well as custom made carbon fibre superbikes thanks to the backing of Lotus, Graham had to not only design his own training regime but build his own bike from left over stock from his shop and parts from an old washing machine.

The bike he subsequently designed had an unusual riding position, which he later became famous for, because not only was it aerodynamic but also because it allowed him to put more pressure on the pedals allowing him to get up to speed without the need for standing up. On his first attempt at the record he failed but he had booked the track for 24 hours so decided to come back early next morning to try again. In order to prevent his body from seizing up while he slept, he made himself drink pint after pint of water so that he would have to wake up every two hours for toilet trips which allowed him to stretch his muscles. With so much punishment on his body it should have been a waste of time even going back on track. The day before he had been fresh and had failed the old record by a kilometer, but this time the effort was not in vain and he beat the record by over 400 meters.

At a time when most professional cyclists seemed to be ruining the sport by competing with the aid of illegal drugs the World governing cycling body (the UCI) seemed to be more concerned that the evolution of the bicycle was making it possible for a disproportionate improvement to track records. So they banned the unusual elbows tucked in riding position that Graham had used to set his record, which meant that this necessitated the need for a new bike to be designed and built if he was to continue racing after Chris Boardman broke it a week after he had set it.

His new bike had yet another unusual riding position, later to be named the Superman position because of the way his arms were outstretched in front of him as he rode. He used this new bike to win the World Championship pursuit.

Not bad for someone who had to get over bouts of depression, which at times in his life was so severe that he had tried to kill himself not once but twice. The first time as a child when he was only saved by the luck of his father getting off of work unusually early and once as an adult after his brother died of a car crash, this time being saved by a woman who was checking out a barn.

To me its unusual stories like that can make Sport so much more interesting than impressive skills and crazy income levels and the building of expensive superteams such as Real Madrid.

No comments: