Saturday, December 07, 2013

An Historic Voice From the Cheap Seats

Few human beings deserve being put on an eternal pedestal, but Nelson Mandela fills that bill if anyone ever did. Before he is memorialized (and trivialized) in the category of "hero so great we can safely ignore his life's relevance to ours," however, let me put forth a memory that Mandela was as human as could be when sports was the topic.

It was the first day of competition in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Yours truly was there, covering his first Olympics, jet-lagged and clueless. Having my first sinking encounter with the Olympic fear that wherever you are, the best story is somewhere else, I heeded the advice of veteran writers I'd talked to in the States. "Go to boxing," I was told. "Something always happens there."

So I did, and for neither the first nor last time, I thus received a professional lucky break as enormous as it was undeserved. In Barcelona's delightfully decrepit old fight arena, the first South African athlete of the first integrated South African Olympic team was going to enter the ring. And up high in the balcony, seated near an exit, as bigwigs who visit the Games often are, the better to travel to other events, was Mandela.

I and many American writers who'd actually figured out Mandela might show up were told we could interview him -- after the fight. He didn't want to miss a punch.

Not that there were so many. The bout itself may have been a geopolitical milestone, but it did the sweet science no credit. Understandably undone by the significance of the occasion, the South African boxer, a white guy, by the way, was barely able to lift his arms to defend himself, let alone hit his opponent. He was shellacked.

The scribes then hustled up to Mandela's section of the arena and the interview was duly conducted. After the obligatory round of political and social questions, someone ventured to ask former boxer Mandela what he'd thought of the fight.

Mandela made a frowny face. "He should've used his right more," he said of his countryman, making that short little punching gesture that boxing spectators always have and always will use to emphasize their advice. He then changed the subject.

Nelson Mandela. Revolutionary. Statesman. Moral Hero. And for at least one minute in a gym in Spain, 100 percent disgruntled fight fan.


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