Magazine article The Spectator

Those Who Won't Lie Down and Die

Magazine article The Spectator

Those Who Won't Lie Down and Die

Article excerpt

THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

BOOK OF SPORTS OBITUARIES

edited by Martin Smith

Macmillan, 15.99, pp. 332

In 1959 I met a swimmer from the 1928 Chinese Olympic team, the first and last until the modern period. He had competed against Johnny Weissmuller, who won three medals. The American had already won three in 1924. Five of his six medals were golds. Altogether, we learn from this entertaining and often funny book, Weissmuller broke 67 swimming records before retiring at 25, having never lost a race. He went on to play Tarzan in 19 films between 1932 and 1949, for which he was paid $100,000 per film, most of which, he said later, 'I blew ... on boats and good living.' His advice to his successor as Tarzan was, `The main thing is, don't let go of the vine when you're swinging through the jungle.'

I asked the Chinese ex-Olympian what he remembered about Weissmuller. `Nothing,' he replied. `But I remember the Japanese who came third. He wrote with his left hand.' Southpaws are almost unimaginable in China, where they are changed over to righties early in life. Such was my lesson in fame.

I thought about these matters while preparing this review, watching the Olympics, and cringing as my fellow Americans, whenever they won, told us with practised ease how wonderful they were. Contrast this with Sally Gunnell, a champion four years ago, who commented after the modest Cathy Freeman won the 400 meters, `Everyone will want a piece of her now. I have a giraffe named after me.'

Will the giraffe appear in Ms Gunnell's obituary? Indeed, as Martin Smith, the keen-eyed editor of this latest in the Telegraph's obit series, asks, `When . . . do sportsmen and women dieT After they pass away or when they hang up their actual or figurative boots? I say wait. Otherwise would we know that in 1998, when he was 96, Gene Sarazen, the golfer who won the American Open for the first time in 1922 and was the first player to win all four major championships, was teeing off to open the Masters? Next to him was another great golfer, Sam Snead, 85. `Get that left shoulder tucked under your chin, Gene, and make a full turn,' Snead advised the man who in 1932 had been the highestpaid sportsman on earth. Sarazen then drove the ball 160 yards straight down the fairway. `God damn it,' he told Snead. `If someone had told me that 80 years ago, I'd have been a hell of a player. …

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