The Century in Sports

The Eighth Annual Village Voice Sportswriters' Poll

A Tale of Two Eras

As one millennium folds into another there has never been, I maintain, a better time to be a sports fan. Why? Because athletes are better than ever. It may have more to do with Cybex and creatine than evolution, but when Mark McGwire, Vince Carter, or Randy Moss takes center stage, put down that remote, because you might miss something you've never seen before and may never see again. Thanks to the miracles of modern science, when one of these human highlight films blows out a knee, or announces that he has cancer, we can wonder when he'll come back, not if. And for the first time in recent memory, we can enjoy it all without the imminent threat of a strike or a lockout hanging over our heads. (Enjoy that while it lasts.)

And we've got more ways than ever to indulge our sports jones. Flip to the pregame while you're crunching Allan Houston's quarter-by-quarter numbers on Stats Inc. Online. Let Marv do the play-by-play (Yesss!) complete with telestrators, reverse replays, and of course, the jam cam. Blow off the halftime report and watch Willie Mays take on Hank Aaron in Home Run Derby on ESPN Classic. Watch Latrell answer Al Trautwig's smirking questions while getting dressed on the postgame show. Vent your spleen on WFAN with Joe Benigno on the overnight. And read about it all in tomorrow's paper. In a lot of important ways, sitting in your fin-de-siècle living room is much better than being there.

But for all of this era's guilty pleasures, there's also never been a worse time to be a sports fan, either. Day after day, the sports section morphs into cringe-a-thon. When an owner claims that a player's contract is forcing him to raise ticket prices, or he'll have to move the team unless the taxpayers fork over $500 million for a new stadium, we believe him. When the bulldozers line up outside a true American landmark like Boston Garden, Fenway Park, or God forbid Yankee Stadium, we watch the dust and then buy a piece of the memory on QVC. And when a wide receiver stands to have his career ended by lethal injection, we hardly blink an eye.

But the way I see it, we've got a chance at a fresh start. The millennial odometer has rolled over, and it's zero-zero. So my resolution is going to be twofold. First, I'm going to try to watch sports like I did when I was 12, transfixed, transported, awed, even frightened at what happens on the field (even if that means cheering in the press box). But when the game is over, I'll put my cynicism aside in a different way, and do more than just shake my head knowingly when the guys who play these games or run these leagues are duplicitous, short-sighted, cruel, or just plain stupid. And I invite you to do the same. —Allen St. John

When Sports Meets Politics

In an echo of past imperial glory, a supremely confident young warrior named Cassius Marcellus Clay won fame in the brutal arenas of Rome, just as the American Century was beginning to show the cracks and strains of empire. The Olympic year of 1960 would soon be outstripped by "The Sixties," and no one embodied them more than the newly christened Muhammad Ali: Whether converting to what the ruling class viewed as a bewildering and dangerous religion, partying with Hunter Thompson or Norman Mailer, boosting Howard Cosell's career, reading poetry in the Village, or, most ominously, refusing to fight the Viet Cong, Ali took hold of America's hydra-headed monster of race, religion, and class and beat it like a gong.

The frustrated youngster, who threw his gold medal into the Ohio River when he found that even an Olympian was judged solely on melanin content, grew into the man who faced down the entire military-industrial complex as thoroughly as he had that equally fearsome bully Sonny Liston, achieving lasting victory over both. He lost skills and money in the three-plus years he was barred from boxing, but his principled stand won him respect all over the world.

Sport can be suffused with tribal hatreds that leave behind trampled soccer fans or burning, overturned cars, and politics often sully games that only the supremely naive feel should be simple contests of strength, speed, agility, and graceful sportsmanship. Yet Ali, using only that most basic tool, the human hand, whether clenched in a fist or held outstretched in a gesture of trust, reconciliation, and peace, showed that it can also be luminous and poignant.

It was, in fact, Ali's trembling, stricken hand that lofted the Olympic torch in '96, and until the bomb went off, we all forgot for a while that politics hang over sports like so many swastika banners festooning 1936 Berlin. But politics ultimately look small and unimportant next to the triumphant, beatific howls of Picabo Street and Michael Johnson, or the desolate rictus of a fallen Mary Decker, or, especially, the Führer's constipated anger as thousands of good Germans eschewed xenophobia and cheered Jesse Owens's four gold medals. —Bob Baker

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