Sport and morality went hand in hand – until Muhammad Ali

Thanks to his example, immodesty is now a virtue practised by most so-called sportsmen

High Life

16 Jun 2016

Marion, Baroness Lambert, was hit and killed by a London bus last month while shopping in Oxford Street, a cruel irony if ever there was one. ‘At least it was Bentley,’ was how Steven Aronson, the writer, put it.

Marion was a very old friend of mine. She had endured the worst tragedy that can befall a mother, having lost a beautiful young daughter to suicide. Philippine Lambert had been sexually abused by a family friend, a sordid story that I first broke in these here pages and later in the Sunday Times. It was a vile affair and I won’t dwell on it, but it cemented a very strong friendship between us because the alleged abuser was a very rich man with powerful connections who actually warned me to desist. I did nothing of the kind, and wrote the story three times. Eventually, other news outlets picked it up.

Marion and her husband, Baron Philippe Lambert, never forgot it. When I once lost my temper with some EU biggies they had staying in their chalet, and threatened them with physical violence, the Lamberts announced that I could do no wrong. The biggies stuttered, huffed and puffed, then went back to devouring their caviar. (They had said something outrageous, like ‘we know better than you poor fools’ — or words to that effect.)

Marion and Philippe were very generous hosts. Their food was a gourmet’s wet dream, and the conversation at table was always — how do I describe it? — almost pugilistic. That’s because Marion held very strong opinions and was not scared to defend them. She also had a sense of humour. On one occasion, I repeatedly sang the praises of Annabel’s, the nightclub, to a tall man called Birley, who looked more and more nonplussed as the evening wore on. He turned out to be Lord Airlie, something to the Queen, but to the poor little Greek boy, Airlie and Birley were one and the same. Marion let me bang on about the nightclub even after it became clear that I had misheard the name. (When I told the story to Mark Birley, the then proprietor, I managed to elicit a wintry smile from him, as rare an occurrence as a Congolese minister without a foreign bank account.)

And speaking of that hell on earth, Philippe Lambert’s grandfather lent the money to Leopold of Belgium to buy the place, something we didn’t let Philippe forget following the annual Congolese massacres of the innocent. Marion was a restless soul, curious, involved, oversensitive to perceived anti-Semitism, very brave in the physical sense, and, of course, outspoken. Well past 70, she would climb mountains and ski down on deep snow, then engage in non-stop arguments about world affairs. Her obituaries all mentioned her as a great art collector, and that she was, but I think she preferred collecting interesting people. One thing is for sure: she really didn’t deserve to be thrown under a London bus.

She is the second of my friends to die in such a manner. And apparently she was the second or third person to be run over by a bus on that street in that week alone. Perhaps the new London mayor, whose father’s occupation as a London bus driver from Pakistan was advertised ad nauseam, should look into the fact that Pakistani bus drivers habitually run down tourists looking the wrong way. (Yes, yes, I know; this might be perceived as a racist comment, but those who see it as such can go reproduce themselves.)

Another death that elicited stop-the-presses encomiums the world over was that of Muhammad Ali. I was no admirer, despite the fact that I grew up boxing and followed the beak-busting sport before it became a joke, with every weight division being split in three and every boxer fighting for a made-up world title.

Ali denigrated gracious, dignified Joe Louis as an ‘Uncle Tom’, just because Joe kept race out of the sport of boxing. He popularised and commercialised trash talking, name-calling and chest-pounding — something that no sport has recovered from. The cowardly media allowed Ali to use vile invective against opponents, and made immodesty a virtue now practised by most so-called sportsmen, especially in contact sports. Ali and the ‘we’re cool, too’ pandering media have a lot to answer for, especially the gloating over a fallen opponent that is a must nowadays.

My heart tells me that Rocky Marciano would have knocked out the braggart, but my brain disagrees. (Ali’s left jab would have cut Rocky’s vulnerable eyebrows to shreds.) I know it’s like spitting against a tsunami, but give me sportsmen like the saintly Eric Liddell any day, and braggarts like Ali can go you-know-where. He chose to become a Black Muslim, whatever that is, and perhaps if he were still around he could explain to us what the murderous imam who radicalised the last mass killer in Orlando taught that particular coward. (Step forward and be counted, Saudi money.) Sport and morality go hand in hand, or used to. The Eric Liddells of this world are long gone. But that doesn’t stop me from not running with the cowardly pack that called Ali king of the world. Bogus of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your uncool credentials.


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