Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay, Jr.) is believed by many to be the greatest boxer who ever lived.
He certainly thought so. He often told the world, “I am the greatest.” Beyond his prowess in the boxing ring, the man who said he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” was a catalyst for social change. His incredible athletic talent gave him a worldwide spotlight and with that, extraordinary influence, and he used that well.
Usain Bolt, the man who set a world record in both the 100m and 200m Olympic races and anchored the Jamaican team to its world record time in the 400m relay, brought home three gold medals for the second Olympics in a row, and had similar things to say to his adoring fans. “I am number one. I am a legend,” said Bolt. He was not bragging. It was a statement of fact.
Bolt is a hero in his country. He is still connected to his roots. In fact his parents remain, by choice, in the humble home he was raised in. He supports schools and medical clinics with his considerable wealth. He inspires Jamaican youth. His positive demeanor and high-spirited attitude are infectious, benefiting all who encounter them. But that is Bolt up to now. If he is truly going to be a legend, he must find a way to leverage that amazing, God-given prowess.
In 1967, as war between the United States and Vietnam raged, three years after Ali had won the world heavyweight championships and converted to Islam, Ali became a “conscientious objector” and refused military conscription into the American Army based on his religious beliefs and opposition to the war. Ali stated famously, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” Ali was publicly vilified across America, but that remark, made several years before the war protests had gotten traction, resonated with a generation of young Americans.
The sentiment, simple though not very eloquently stated, served as a touchstone for the racial protests and anti-war movement that were to rock that nation for a decade – and would subsequently transform it forever. It was a critical time for America and Ali seized the moment and became a catalyst.
Can Bolt do as much?
Surely there are things that need to be made better in our world, but to facilitate change, you have to be in the right place at the right time. Winston Churchill, who may well have been instrumental in saving the world from the terrible tyranny of Nazi Germany, would likely have been regarded as a well-spoken but insufferable man, were he not thrust into prominence and a critical international role as a result of the Second World War.
Bolt needs more than long, ultra-fast legs to be a real legend and to foster significant change.
It will be interesting to see what the fates have in store for Usain Bolt. He may only go down in history as a very fast man who won a lot of gold medals and, for a time, held some speed records in running. He may feel like he is a legend, but history has to cooperate to make him any more than an outstanding athlete.
But really, in the grand scheme of things, what is wrong with a very positive man with extraordinary abilities who is a hero in his own country, inspires youth and provides financial support to schools and medical clinics? We should all be so lucky to do as well.
Perhaps we can take heart in that, in our own small way, we can take what talents and abilities we have been given and do good things with a positive attitude. Who knows, perhaps we will be in the right place at the right time to make a difference and change the world. We, too, will be the greatest, a legend in our own right.