The Bob Beamon Moment

imageOn the afternoon of October 18th 1968, in Mexico City our world was about to witness the “historic moment” of sports history.

The world was bubbling and very revolutionary then. It was the late 60’s and Vietnam, Paris and Prague had all brought people on the streets. Flower power was asserting itself and rebels (with causes) were standing for their rights. Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan were each leading their own revolutionary battles. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated for their respective causes. Then there was the black power movement and only one day before, two black American athletes had been thrown out of the Mexico Olympics for demonstrating the Black Power salute on the medal stand.

On this afternoon Bob Beamon was about to participate in the Long Jump Final. The world record had moved 22 cms in 33 years, since the record jump of Jesse Owens. Beamon was lucky to get through, as he had two foul jumps in the semis and just scraped through on the third. No one, literally no one in the world, could predict what was about to go down.

On the first jump, Beamon took a deep breath and tore down the track, hit the board perfectly and soared into the air, landing deep and for a split second his bottom grounded, cutting inches out of his jump. Nevertheless, despite this reverse, the jump clearly was long. It was so long that the automatic tape measure was unable to authenticate this number. So a manual measure was done, which took some 20 minutes of confirmation. When the result was flashed on the board and across the world, it beggared belief. Beamon had broken the record and his own best by 55 cms. When the result came, Beamon himself collapsed on the track in some sort of seizure. Beamon’s jump knocked out long jump as a competitive event, for decades. It is almost 50 years to that event and only Mike Powell has once out-jumped this number. The Bob Beamon Moment is the single biggest sporting surprise in history.

Cut to today and the Rio Olympics 2016. Wayde van Niekerk came to Rio as a good 400 metre runner. Niekerk had won the World Championship last year, but Kirani James and Merritt, previous Olympic champions were considered still better runners. Niekerk would expect to be on the medals stand, though he had a mediocre qualifying round. When the lot was drawn, it put him in lane 8 ahead of everyone, and so his goose was cooked. It meant he would have to run the race blind, ahead of everyone else. The best Olympic time running from lane 8 ever recorded was 44.66 seconds. Michael Johnson world record stood at 43.18, recorded in 1999. James and Merritt felt confident that running from mid lanes, the real battle was between them now.

Niekerk had no option but to go full blast from the start. But 400 while being a sprint, does exhaust one and one generally ends the race in such a situation as a walking dead. So in the face of this full blast, at 200 metres, James and Merritt (both running fast times also) would fully expect to haul Niekerk in. Infact, if you run the video on the net, it is amazing that Niekerk is so far ahead, that the video actually does not capture him for a bit. Around 350 you can see Niekerk slowing and then most extraordinarily, he kicks on, building a new lead and to the finish. When the result came out, it was 43.03 some 0.15 below the WR, but remember the best lane 8 time. That is what makes this extraordinary. Niekerk ran the second 200 metres faster than the first 200.

The best way to gauge this performance, is to look at Usain Bolts reaction when the time is announced. Bolt was waiting for his 100 metres final, where subsequently he also created history. Bolt also left his pre-run interview and went to hug and congratulate van Niekerk. All these videos are on the internet for one to see. So now is this another great, shocking moment in sports history? It is shocking enough for journalists, around the world, to question it in the press conference. It is shocking enough to make ones spine tingle and I just hope it goes down in history as one of those Bob Beamon Moments.

Time to move on?

imageRarely, there come individuals who are sports stars par excellence, much loved, venerated. They cut across nationality, faith, colour and creed and are put on a pedestal and adored everywhere. In my lifetime I can think of maybe a dozen such revered sportsmen, who were kings in their domain. Muhammad Ali, Bolt, Jordan, Pele, Woods, Sobers and Federer are out of that ilk, belonging to different sports. When they are losing, the crowd suffers with them and lives every moment of their battles.

Just yesterday there was such a painful time, watching Roger Federer being pulled apart by Marin Cilic in the first two sets of the Wimbledon quarter finals. Cilic is a power player, but in his hey day Federer would have despatched him in his usual languid style. So we all suffered alongwith Federer, living in hope, that one last time he will achieve that pinnacle of a Grand Slam victory. And that is the topic of this blog. Do the likes of Federer overdo their stay?

One can quote so many examples of this decline of a super individual. I can remember a horrendous final at Wimbledon in 1974, when a bristling young Jimmy Conners just killed Ken Rosewall, an aging Wimbledon hero. In turn, McEnroe destroyed an aging Jimmy Conners in the 1984 final. Leaving aside tennis one also remembers a struggling Michael Schumacher in Formula One (on his comeback) and the decline of Tiger Woods in golf. I can also recall the sudden slowing down of pace of some express bowlers, as the years took their toll. Imran, Trueman, Thompson, Waqar, Holding were examples of natures destruction. Most poignantly, there is the example of Muhammad Ali declining in his late 30s in boxing.

It does not stop at sports. Humans carry the same tendency wherever they are in a position of power or fame. Rulers seem to stay beyond their time of effectiveness and popularity. CEOs drag their career, milking the last few years, while clearly their ability to manage has declined. Actors and singers stay decades beyond their prime. The creativity and passion (so important in the arts) gone after a peak, but these artistes use their goodwill and fame to hang on, delivering quality well below their best.

All the above examples are a very sorry sight. Witnessing previous masters become ordinary is embarrassing and depressing. It seems people are so addicted to power, fame and adulation, that they are ready to sacrifice their self respect to linger and hang-on as long as they are allowed to. Only it looks terrible and really cheapens these former leaders.

My own philosophy is that decline is natures way. People wane in capability and need to move on with grace. They need to make way for succeeding generations, so that the flower of humanity keeps regenerating. That is what institutionalisation is; it is this institutionalisation which will create sustainability. It is this natural regeneration which will provide humanity with new and better Bradmans, Bolts, Jahangirs, Federers and Schumachers. The leaders in various roles, need to stop this inane hanging on at any cost. It does not bode well for them, is not a good spectacle and reduces human capacity to grow.

In the end a relevant quote from the Quran seems appropriate to describe natures toll.

Surah Yasin
If We grant long life to any, We cause him to be reversed in nature . . . (Qur’an, 36:68)

That is literally we tend towards our childhood years and slowly lose our strength. Also in other places, the Quran mentions old age and the resultant weakness.

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The moment is gone

imageIt was the 1996 World Cup Quarters at Bangalore and two older stalwarts of Pakistan, who singly and together had done it so many times, were fighting it out in the middle. They were trying to retrieve a lost game. They failed. As Javed Miandad walked off late in the innings, his very last departure from the international arena, a highly partisan Indian crowd, let him know that his moment was gone.

This happens so often. In my history of following sports and really even watching life, there comes a time when your moment is gone. It actually happens to all of us in life. Just that some recognise it and deal with it, while others fight on desperately, slowly losing this battle, till one day they depart with less than grace. Nevertheless, it is a riveting sight, sad, melancholy and yet, the spectators watching almost one and all are wishing for success to happen again. It would be a great human story. Alas it almost never happens.

The statement which typifies this journey was made about Rod Laver. Master and king of tennis, and dominant for a decade. At 37 in 1973, he was playing the Aussie Open, and the newspaper wrote, ‘Lavers mind was making appointments, which his body simply could not keep’. That is the spectacle. A former king, not recognising his ageing, his mind still forming the visionary pictures, yet his body gives out.

For me the greatest of these stories, was the one of Muhammad Ali. Boxer, brash, believing, crusader and darling of the world, other than the old conservative red necks. He was not simply a boxer, he was the icon of the 60s and 70s and people pinned hopes of revolutions on him. It was the most instantly recognisable face in the world. He did what few ever did. Reached a pinnacle, sacrificed it on a principle, took on the US government, won, came back from the wilderness, and reached the pinnacle again, not once but twice more. No wonder we thought he was invincible. Maybe he believed it also. But, in the background a wasting disease was already working. In the slow decline spread over years, Ali kept trying to climb the pinnacle once more. He got beaten and only then the body gave out enough for him never to return to the ring. It was a terrible spectacle, yet it was fascinating as a human story, played out in front of the worlds billions. Very few of those did not wish him one last success, but this never happened. What a man and what a tragic decline. What a human story.

There have been many others in our sports, in politics and even conquerors in history. Stanley Matthews played football till fifty, losing his magic in the end. Adlai Stevenson fought elections till no one would vote for him. Alexander went on conquering lands till his army gave out on the banks of the Beas. Napoleon fought till he was washed away by the hordes of his retreating army at Waterloo. None of these and others like them grasped that for reasons of age, or of changes in circumstances, or belief, their moment is gone. But, they add fascination, colour and history, in this life of ours and are part of the effect of the nature of life.

So to today. In the sporting world two such stories are being played out nowadays. Roger Federer, king and master of tennis for long, has been struggling for years for that one last big moment. Its has eluded him these many years and so many of us want him to have that. Only nature is matter of fact and has no sympathy or emotion about this. Similarly, in the world of golf, Tiger Woods, revolutionary golfer, has not won a major in seven years. He is desperate and works and enters all the four majors. Yet at almost forty, is his time past? So many want him to have one last big day, before he goes off in the sunset. One hopes that both the above do not descend to the level of ordinary mortals, as they have been kings in their domain for long. Such a sight is generally unbearable. One prays that they have their day in the sun and then fade away gracefully.

To all I would suggest there is a time and space for success and the limelight. Then the moment is gone.

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Ranjish he sahee…


Ranjish he sahee…

The news first flashed across as a Facebook status on a friend’s page and immediately after that on internet news. Mehdi Hassan, the great singer, had passed away after a long period of illness. What descended was a mute sense of numbness which stayed on for the next many hours. It was as if a tiny little part of my heart and soul had departed from this world, along with him.

On a PIA flight to the UK, his death was announced and his melody played. “Ranjish hee sahee… aa phir say mujhay chor kay jaanay kay liye aa”.

Many broke down and cried.

My first memory of Mehdi Hassan was during the 1965 war, when as a very young kid, I remember listening to the milli naghma “khitt’aaey Lahore tere jan nisaroun ko salaam”. As a young kid, I don’t know if I quite grasped the realities of war, but I do remember hearing this song daily on those old box like radios (there was no TV in Karachi till 1967). In fact this was one of the first songs I remember, war or no war. The other memory is of Binaca Geet Mala, but not of a particular song.

And so, that song introduced me to the world of music proper and from there on, my interest in music has taken me on a trip, which has traversed into the depths of Pakistani movie music, then Indian film music, later Western rock music and simultaneously ghazals. Eventually my taste over the years finally stagnated and remained static after the late 80s, but that I believe is the way of things.

Coincidentally, as my music began to stagnate and fixed to that period, this giant of a man, Mehdi Hassan, was struck down by illness and slowly sidelined himself. At the same time new era music bands like Vital Signs and Junoon took over the mantle, and the music baton passed on to a new era and a new way of doing things.

Back to the age of Mehdi Hassan. He and others like him (Nur Jahan, Iqbal bano, Habib Wali Mohammad etc.) were all creating great songs. My memory is of several movies with Mehdi Hasan’s songs in them; of Muhammad Ali and Waheed Murad lip-singing that perfect voice; of black and white movies, low on technology, badly edited but marked by fantastic music that would make up for all and any shortfalls. It is the one pillar, along with our great actors, the golden triangle if you will, that kept the industry alive.

I look back and I see the triangle gone. As have several other icons like Nur Jahan, Ahmed Ruishdi, Masood Rana, Nasim Begum and Maala.

Back then, our world was so much smaller and closer, with no internet, little TV, and globalization kept at bay. Our reality revolved around the few but the real; movies, cricket, hockey, chaat, paan houses and familiar voices speaking and singing from all transistors and radios everywhere we went.

Woven into this world were the heroes and the singers. They carried a status which was much more intricately attached to our world. There were very few of these and they were local. These were the peacocks of the jungle, who performed in a world small, insular and simple, wearing kurta pyjamas and looking a lot like their doting followers. Even where we could not recognize a singer by face, we would by their voice, in a million other voices. These were the few movers and shakers of that age. And because they were few, they became much larger than life for us.

That world is a reminder of a Pakistan which was a happy, passionate and tolerant homeland of all faiths, sects and religions.

I remember seeing Mehdi Hassan on the TV in the 70’s and later at a couple of ghazal evenings. The memory of his artistry and skill is like an exquisite pain, because I know that the likes of him and that age will never return. It is like doors being shut on one’s past. The only option is to let a flow of tears relieve the mourning of the dearly departed, his art form and a life that is no more. We are bidding goodbye to an age which was radically different to the nano technology era.

My last meeting with Mehdi Hassan was at a Pepsi function in 2001 at the Indus TV studios. We knew the man had been very ill sometime before and therefore Pepsi, with its association to music, wanted to honour the man. I remember he arrived late, confined to a wheelchair. Seeing him was a great shock. I leaned forward and shook his hands, and I suspect my utter devastation was only too visible to him and others around me. A music giant of the highest order subjected to such helplessness. I could hardly contain my pain as I kept my hand on his shoulder, while the photographers flashed away.

Eleven years later today is the first time I have written of those terrible few moments. It was too painful to recall. It is too painful today. The memory of a man; the tragedy of a loss; the foundations of a life removed inch by inch from right under one’s feet.

Mehdi Hassan, may you rest in peace.

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