Saturday on the Couch... with the world's greatest sporting heroes

It’s odd, and an aspect that is mentioned in the book, that we immediately associate that term The Greatest with sport rather than, say, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient (how many of those can you name?) or, for example, a Mother Teresa-type person.

Matthew Syed was once England’s top table tennis player but has achieved much more fame as a writer.  He picks aspects of sport and individual players’ make-up and analyses them in detail to determine the difference between winning and losing, particularly that last bit that separates the very good from the truly great.

It’s actually just selected articles he has written over the years on all manner of sporting achievements (with the accent on Great Britain, where he resides) and they’re compiled, not necessarily in chronological order, but in theme progression.

Having been a football coach myself and a great believer in the mental aspect, there’s much in this small volume I can relate to.

Athletes, such as Federer, Iniesta, Froome, Cruyff, Schumacher, Woods and many others who have had a significant impact on their chosen sports, are discussed in detail with their oddities accented so as we, the reader, can better understand why these people achieved where others fell just short.

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Drugs get an in-depth mention, personal tragic stories unfold (note SBS’s fine discussion recently on the aftermath of athletes’ careers) and the downside is dealt with, as is our fascination with performance and why it supersedes acclamation for more worthy achievements in other fields such as medicine and humanitarianism.  

For instance, what doctor received a lifetime achievement award from the American Academy of Neurology and was, for eight years, a master at Pembroke College at Oxford?  No?  Well, how about who was the first man to run a four-minute mile?  The fact that they are one in the same reflects, perhaps somewhat adversely, on society in general.  (Incidentally, Sir Roger Bannister is also an active member of a book club.)

The book is broken up into five parts; Building a Champion, The Mental Game, On Beauty, The Political Game and Icons.  Thus we see exposed how sport is used to overcome childhood embarrassments, raise the political status and focus on something other than the devils in real life.  No better example here than Zhuang Zedong, the most successful table tennis player in history.  When he was imprisoned for four years after the Cultural Revolution and two of his colleagues had hung themselves, he still believed in Chairman Mao!

The controversial get a good airing as well, along with how they influenced opinions.  Martina Navratilova for her escape from the then Czechoslovakia, to her “coming out” as a lesbian, Jake LaMotta’s brutal life, the harsh reaction to Billie Jean King’s lifestyle as well and many others.  However, I quote here from a chapter on Lance Armstrong that, for me, sums up not only athletes but our attitude towards them as well.

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“It begins with the building up of a hero, lionizing his virtues, airbrushing his flaws, creating a messianic caricature that we can love without inhibition.  And then, with the inevitability of a lion kill, we witness the relish with which he is decapitated, his erstwhile heroism wielded as a perfect tool for the evisceration.”

Are we perhaps wanting to associate ourselves with some sort of control over what we witness and then ultimately condemn?

The last chapter is, not surprisingly, about Muhammed Ali, the person who encapsulates everything about sports people that we both love and hate.  His womanising, attitude to Joe Frazier, post sporting life consisting of sitting at home watching videos of himself and other aspects we may not approve of, but the man himself was a magnet, with his showmanship attitude, positive thoughts on racial discrimination, mocking of opponents and, above all, his initial beauty and grace in the ring.  It mattered not what you thought, you had to watch him.

Therein lies the reason we are addicted to sport, it encompasses all manner of human endeavours and frailty in one basket and this series of articles will enlighten you to many aspects of sport that you may have overlooked in an entertaining manner.

The Greatest by Matthew Syed (published by Hachette Australia) is available now from Dymocks. Click here to learn more.