“It would have been unimaginable only a few years ago for an Olympian to admit to significant doubts during the games, much less to withdraw from an event. Biles, Osako and others in their generation have been vocal about putting their mental health first and the expectations of others, at best, second.”
For over fifty years I had charted the exploits, the victories and defeats, the agonies and ecstasies of my chosen sports heroes. None had been greater, more gravity-defying, mind blowing, and magical- than Simone Biles. No one — at four feet seven inches — has towered so majestically above her rivals since Michael Jordan had revolutionized basketball with his special brand of aerial dynamics forty years ago. Almost as surprising were the waves of worldwide sympathy and support for the suddenly stricken champion whose calamitous crisis of confidence was being played out on a global stage (Disclosure: as I write this, a follow-up Times article triumphantly announces that, hours ago, Biles rejoined her team, and managed, at a lesser event with a lesser degree of difficulty, and with no skin in the race, to win a bronze medal). For the universally acclaimed “goat,” (greatest gymnast of all time) with a grand total of 25 medals, it is at best a consolation prize= a salve to soothe her wounded pride, a spontaneous outpouring of love, and an 11th hour Hail-Mary pass to salvage at least a modicum of Olympic glory.
On another level, it can also be seen as somewhat opportunistic virtue-signaling, a variant of I feel your pain; Me Too, Black Lives Matter, the Times are a-Changin’ rolled into one: (As New York Times columnist Bret Stephens notes Joe Biden may have run as a middle of the roader, but ever since being elected (he has hitched his political wagon to the wave of political radicalization currently sweeping the democratic party)
Everything is political, as they say, that’s another way of pointing out, everything is transactional, self-serving, and therefore biased.
From such a perspective, life, everything, is a zero-sum game: there are winners and there are losers. We live in a binary world- a yes or no transparent world without nuance in which everything is for sale, which is another way of saying life is like a giant video game. Except it is not. There is such a thing as meaning, a politics of meaning. Is there a metric of meaning, is there a measurement system, capable of quantifying- what is essentially non-physical, experiential, personal, and psycho-dynamical?
The answer is no. What is most important to us, our non-replicable Self- is beyond measurement. Instead of measurement, we have probability. I can’t tell you if it will rain tomorrow. I can tell you what the chances are. With the help of technology our ability to calculate probability is more than good enough to take us through our lives: that is in a biological-Darwinian sense.
But if you want to know what is the meaning0 what is the value, or to what extent has your presence made a difference if any in the little world in which you travel you will have to look elsewhere: You will have to look within. A place without boundaries, that can not be tracked by GPS.
From this perspective, competitive sports at a world-class level is a way of taking a rather ordinary event — running, jumping, wrestling — and by adding impossible degrees of difficulty turning into an achievement of mythic proportions. By doing something no matter how pedestrian, no one else in the world can do, by definition is to be a champion. In our abnormally competitive culture, being a champion is to be a celebrity.
When I was only seven, my father, for the first time, took me to Times Square in New York. Of many strange and wonderful sights, none was more mesmerizing than the Mighty Atom. This was a five-foot-five professional Strongman with a resume of mind-blowing recorded feats of strength (eg, pulling a two-ton vehicle with his teeth, bending steel bars, etc. He stood shirtless, heavily muscled, Samson-like tresses falling to his shoulders. By his side was a table loaded with props. The crowd that had gathered listened intently and studied his movements. They did not seem surprised when he stated matter-of-factly he could easily bend pure steel with only his fingers. No one challenged him when he proceeded to lift off the table a two-inch steel nail, slid it between the second and fourth fingers of his right hand, and effortlessly — using only the middle finger of his hand as a lever — quickly bent it (not slightly but completely) into a near symmetrical u-shape. No one accepted his invitation to examine the freshly bent nail — and keep if they wish, as a memento, indisputable proof of at least one man’s possession of superhuman strength. No one that is, except me. Quickly I raised my hand (it was an offer too good to refuse).
As soon as I was out of eyesight, I did my best to unbend the shiny steel nail that looked new and unused. Had it moved ever so slightly, what had seemed magical would have been irredeemably tarnished. But it didn’t move then, and not once in the dozens of times over the next fifteen years I tried to unbend it. Not ever. It didn’t matter, my superman fixation had moved on. The superman of comic books and TV “up, up and away” may not exist but I had proof that there really were people (the Mighty Atom) who possessed what could legitimately be called super powers. Did it matter if someone didn’t have such super power- whether they could actually fly like comic book superman?
Somehow, the more I thought about it, it did seem to matter. As the Jewish son of an orthodox mother, I had been duly impressed by the holiest of holy days: Yom Kippur, when for twenty-four straight hours you fasted, relying only on water. It was the day when God, reviewing sins you have committed, the past year, decides the necessary punishment to administer, and wrote them in a book.
This was the time I became aware of a precocious budding interest in theology. Did God really have such a book and why would he need one? I found that peculiar. I tried to visualize such a book. What would it look like? Had anyone except God ever read it? Did God himself ever actually read it? And what exactly were the kind of punishments he considered? Were they just considered, were they ever enacted? Were the bad things that had undoubtedly happened to me in my young life, unbeknownst to me, been punishments from God? If so, how could I tell the difference? Were there telltale signs? Clues?
When I was getting dangerously close to the forbidden territory of the Yom Kippur Big Book of Sins? It seems unfair. I got it that God’s ways were mysterious, his presence was hidden and his privacy was to, at all costs, be respected. But I didn’t understand why.
Then in a flash of inspiration I had the solution. It was a daring idea. What if I make a pact with Him, God, a pact I would never reveal. God would bestow upon me the truly super-human power of actual flight. I could go to sleep as myself and I would wake up as The Boy Who Could Fly. Years later, a movie of the same name was literally made. And a few decades later, a much, much deeper movie, Birdie, based on an award-winning novel, marking the debut of Matthew Modine, appeared.
Both movies captured the irresistible magical appeal of possessing the personal power to overcome the force of gravity. In my pact, all I was asking God to grant me was the ability to — secretly, with my bedroom door closed for security reasons- to ascend to the ceiling (about ten feet away), and take a quick solo survey of bedroom examining from every conceivable height, angle and position.
I wasn’t looking for anything- just the mind-blowing thrill of being the first living boy who could fly. It would be more than enough. It would prove (in my mind) I had a special relationship with God. That therefore, in some way, I was special. It would prove, if God granted me flight, however briefly, that he had other powers. It would be proof He existed, which would be a miraculous achievement — Eight-Year Old Boy Proves the Existence of God. Even if no one in the world would ever know of my accomplishment (I would be determined, if I could levitate, to keep my end of the bargain); God’s secret would be safe.
But the moment I woke, I knew it was not going to happen. I could feel the futility of my quest even before I was about to attempt what would be my revolutionary first unassisted human flight — a feat that would dwarf even the wildest dreams of the Wright Brothers.
To save face before immediately conceding defeat, I lightly patted the cold bedroom floor with my bare feet. There was no liftoff magic. I wasn’t delusional. I was almost certain there would be no suspension of nature’s grandest law, gravity, on my behalf. I would have been quite upset if there had been. I had no desire to have a real relationship with a real superior being. I had no desire to be in possession, to have a real super power, at my beck and call Up, up and Away.
What made it so exciting was that it didn’t exist, that fantasies of superhuman power were just that- fantasies. When you had an exciting memory as I did those fantasies would rapidly fade as you grew older.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Olympics. The march of technology, the explosion of multiple global populations, the revolutionary advances of bioengineering, of robotics, performance-enhancing drugs blurred the line between human and machine.
Decades-old sacrosanct records, once thought untouchable, began falling like dominoes. Who would have thought that Deep Blue, nothing but a machine all the way down, could beat Gary Kasparov, the strongest-rated human chess player in history at that time?
Who would have thought that algorithms, increasingly tailored to accommodate human needs, could actually challenge homo sapiens’ hegemony over the planet earth?
I am picking Simone Biles (there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others I could have chosen) as a standard bearer of previously undreamed of seemingly superhuman, but quite real super powers. Seeing her for the first time in the height of her powers (as I did) is to experience the shock of the real. How could it be possible that a human being could rewrite, redefine, recalibrate the relationship of body and space, of motion and gravity, the way she does? How could it be possible that anyone could come close to what Mark Spitz had accomplished in Olympic swimming thirty years ago. Yet, not only is that exactly what Michael Phelps accomplished, he made it seem easy, preordained, as though Mark Spitz’ record never had a chance.
The price tag for being an Olympian is steep. A leading European psychiatrist once told me that he has worked with gold medal winners who were literally psychotic during the time they were establishing new world records. Part of the appeal of the super-gifted is that they are so far above you that you will never have to compete against them. There is no possibility you will embarrass yourself because the expectations that you can engage them in a serious way at their level are zero.
Watching someone like Simone Biles is thrilling the way that the contemplation of a roller coaster ride is thrilling: It looks dangerous, can even feel dangerous, but in reality, is quite safe. It’s a quick fix. The down feeling which typically follows a hotly contested sporting event is analogous to the user who “crashes” after a drug high.
There’s a difference between a drug high and meaningful excitement. Something that is meaningful tends to involve a sense of inner process, of the participation of the ego. There is a feeling that something is at stake, one’s identity is on the line. It is not enough that to say that there is suffering and loss. Thirty-five hundred Americans lost their lives on Sept 11, 2001. The sense of communal loss was palpable as people came together in the immediate aftermath in a way they had not in decades. It lasted two weeks.
At the time of this writing, we are still waiting for the end of COVID 19… for the end of the Delta Variant and whatever comes next. What has come to an end is the American presence in Afghanistan, the promise of protection we offered against the threat of the reinvasion of the Taliban. Amazingly what was feared for twenty years has occurred with astonishing speed. The Taliban, in the space of days, has retaken just about all of Afghanistan. Donald Trump has failed to delegitimize the election of Joe Biden but the pernicious influence of Trump-ism continues to spread and mutate. Joe Biden, after running perhaps the most passionless quest for the presidency in the history of the United States, and after cooling his heels in his cozy bunker, “just doin’ what the docs tell me to do,” while the deadliest pandemic in 100 years (claiming 660,000 lives to date worldwide) has emerged to reinvent himself as the Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the twenty-first century.
He is claiming the lion’s share of the credit for the expected passage of a 3.5 trillion-dollar relief bill, the greatest social justice package since LBJ’s Great Society and FDR’s New Deal. Meanwhile, Speak of the House Nancy Pelosi is introducing the new democratic catch phrase “The Biden Vision for America.”
I have never met a person whose life was affected by the passage or defeat of a bill in Congress. Politicians do not have super powers. Olympians outside of an extraordinarily narrow range of human behavior do not have super powers.
Totalitarian movements, forces governments (as in the industrial military complex) cumulatively can have great power (of a mostly negative kind) but for the individual to feel empowered in a meaningful way, their personal idioms would have to engaged (disclosure: here I lean heavily on the writings of Christopher Bollas — I also find the novelist-philosopher Rebecca Goldstein’s concept of a map of mattering quite helpful).
The map of meaning (as I define it) cannot be quantified, it cannot be replicated. By definition there is only one such map in the world. There is no GPS when it comes to negotiating your personal meaning map. You know it when you engage it. Because we are talking about very early foundations of one’s meaning (personal idiom). We are talking about something pre-lingual, impossible to define, with no known or prior characteristics. The best clues tend to be non-cognitive, something mid-way between dream and thought. Such meanings tend to be inflected rather than comprehended. They are felt, sensed, rather than articulated. They are often unobtrusive, sometimes unconscious. They are always experiential. They resonate, but they tend to do so quietly. They often appear or are identified in reflective minds, meanings that tend to be substantive are like memes, they are attractors that are good at piggybacking their way into consciousness. As William James famously said “experience is what we agree to attend to.”
Favorite songs, melodies, jokes, idioms, catchphrases, movies, books, images; are important because we make them important. How? By obsessively paying attention to them. What we idolize are keys to who we are. No two meaning maps are ever the same — to the extent that no two people (including twins) are ever the same. Knowing who we love, what and how we love, tells a lot about who we are- it can’t tell us why we love what we do.
The answer to that lies buried in the origin of unconscious.
Rebecca Goldstein’s mattering map is a powerful tool for those who wish to explore critical aspects of their psyche, to explicate and flesh out the ideas. I offer some examples culled from my own map of meaning. The alert reader will immediately note all of my heroes were not just considered very good but were widely regarded as among the very greatest who ever practiced their craft. Each of them, in hindsight, at one point or another in their career was in contention
for being nominated as the goat. Each of them to my mind possessed the equivalent of a super power. Each of them soared so far above ordinary mortals, such as you and me, it was as if they could fly.
When Willie Mays, barely twenty years old, arrived in New York, he had been preceded by an unprecedented expectation of greatness. He could do things no one else could. Leo Durocher, the colorful, charismatic manager of the New York Giants, put it this way: “Willie Mays could hit, he could hit with power, he could field, he could run and could throw. And if you could do those five things it seems to me you are a great player.”
Over a period of twenty years Willie Mays exhibited time and again he could do each of these things. One play in particular sands out: It’s early in the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians (who had just set the all-time record for most games won in a single season). The bases are loaded for the Cleveland Indians and Vic Wertz, their great left-handed slugger is at the plate. Willie Mays is in center field. Wertz hits a tremendous drive to the furthest reaches of right center (450 feet away). Mays, who had great speed, had turned his back the instant the ball was struck, and raced to the wall, stopping about a foot from the 450th foot. For the first time, Mays glanced back — just in time to catch a ball that had traveled 450 feet, falling from the sky- catching the ball with inches to spare. Mays unleashed a missile-like throw (nearly 400 feet away) to the third baseman. The Cleveland Indians runner, who simply could not believe such a catch and throw were humanly possible, had tagged up at second base and was well on his way to advancing to third base. Willie Mays’ amazing throw froze him in his tracks and sent him scampering back to the safety of second base. Had Mays not made that catch, at least three, maybe even four runs would have scored. That single but spectacular play seemed to break the spirit of the American League Champions who lost quickly in four straight games.
The famous sports writer and columnist Mike Lupica once described a super spectacular outfield play (that I happened to see live) this way: “You could watch a thousand games in a row and you won’t see a play that good,” That’s a perfect way to describe a once in a lifetime play. You only get to see them once, asking for more is like asking to see lightning strike twice.
That applies to every memorable play I’ve seen in the past fifty years. I never saw a centerfielder make a catch and throw like Willie Mays did in 1954. I never saw a third baseman make one incredible play after another — like Brooks Robinson did in a pivotal game in the 1973 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. I never saw a right fielder make one great play after another in a World Series Game like the late all-time great Roberto Clemente did against the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series.
Listening to baseball games on the radio and watching on television with my father were gateway experiences to my growing obsession with athletic superheroes. In football, there was the first nationally televised championship game between the Baltimore Colts and The New York Giants. This was the game in which Johnny Unitas, with his team trailing in sudden-death overtime, marched up the field, flawlessly executing one crucial pass after another until finally, a yard or so from the goal line, he handed off to all-Pro fullback Alan ‘the Horse’ Ameche, who plunged into the end zone for the winning touchdown. The game is still (rightfully, in my opinion) considered to be one of the greatest football games of all time.
There was Jimmy Brown, seemingly unstoppable, setting new rushing records; Joe Montana winning four straight Superbowls without ever being intercepted once and Jerry Rice setting all-time pass running and rushing records that still stand.
In professional football, Jimmy Brown was the first superstar to be dubbed “superman,” but it was Wilt ‘the Stilt’ Chamberlain who would own that title. Over 60 years later it is hard to overestimate the awe, the sense of being hopelessly overmatched which greeted Wilt’s debut in the NBA. (the consensus of which was a desolate “now I know what it is like to play Superman”
His record- setting fifty points per game (for an entire season) may be the one record in professional sports that will never be broken. (as of this writing it’s been over fifty years and counting since it was first achieved in 1964. Of note is that not only has Chamberlain’s record been untouched but no one has ever averaged over 40 points in a game.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Of all the major spectacle Sports, boxing was my favorite, and of all the boxing shows my favorite was one by Jimmy Jacobs (a handball champion who would later achieve fame as co-manager of a ferocious young heavyweight by the name of Mike Tyson). The show was Classic Fights and many of these, culled from his enormous personal boxing archives, were or would become enduring classics.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre refers to a notorious gangland multiple-murder — the result of the ambush by soldiers of Al Capone of an unsuspecting rival Chicago gang who thought they were having a routine sit down that was ‘just business.’ They could not have been more wrong. Thus, the phrase St. Valentine’s Massacre became synonymous with a sweet-sounding entreaty that goes horribly wrong. In boxing, it has only one meaning: it refers to one of the most famous, and most brutal prize fights in history. This of course, is the fifth meeting between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake Lamotta. It occurs in February 1951 in Chicago (the anniversary of the real life gangland massacre involving Al Capone and his biggest rivals). It is for the middleweight championship of the world. Robinson’s record at this time is 40 and one, with his only loss coming at the hands of the much bigger, stronger Jake Lamotta (“the Bronx Bull”), whom he has already beaten four times. Robinson, at this time, is at his peak, widely considered the greatest fighter “pound for pound,” in the world. As a welterweight champion for six years he has won 90 fights in a row. He has never lost as a welterweight (and he would remain that way when he subsequently retired (immediately upon winning the middleweight championship).
Of the thousands of prizefights I’ve seen in the past fifty plus-years, involving some of the most celebrated champions of yesteryear — I’ve never seen a fight like this. Gil Clancy the legendary manager of two-time middleweight champion Emile Griffith, commenting on this fight, noted “what I remember most of all were the combinations…, amazing combinations.”
Robinson’s combinations were generally considered to be among the finest in history; he had great power in either hand; unmatched hand speed; perfect balance. He would hit long from the outside and very short. His famous straight right that knocks out rocky Graziano travels about twelve inches. Rocky never sees it coming. It arrives seconds after Graziano has recorded his own (flash) knockdown of Robinson…
Graziano, one of the greatest right hand punchers in history, rushes forward to capitalize on his unexpected advantage. But the punch catches him cold with such stunning impact that it sends his mouthpiece flying about six feet in the air, something I’ve never seen before. Graziano collapses, falling on his back. In a very famous shot, preserved for boxing posterity in Jacob’s archives, we see Graziano, still prostrate, desperately trying to beat the referee who is counting over him. He is frantically trying to kick some life into his temporarily immobilized leg, but cannot do it, and is counted out.
Robinson is trying to rain some similar destruction on Lamotta. But Lamotta, whom many feel was perhaps the toughest fighter who ever lived, goes on to endure “the worst beating I ever took” and hence one of the most dramatic fights of all time. Truly a graphic, unforgettable illustration of what happens when an irresistible force (Robinson) meets an immovable force (Lamotta).
That’s the close of the sport-orientated, adolescent part of my personal chronical of sports idols. Part Two (which comes out next week) reviews the somewhat more mature encounters with cinematic, creative, performative, scientific superstars whose success depends on their brain as well as on their body.
Gerald Alper is the author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Patient: Psychodynamic Studies of the Creative Personality. His new book is God and Therapy: What We Believe When No One is Watching