Essential ego embraces many different faces

Essential ego embraces many different faces

It was a tag, a tease, a truth. As he challenged Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in February 1964, the label on Muhammad Ali's white robe was clear.

"The Lip."

Gaseous Clay was the prince of preening and the baron of bluster. He had a left jab that bruised and a tongue that stung, a boxer always ready to rumble and rhyme. Before his fight with George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, part of a poem he wrote read as follows:

You know I'm bad/ just last week, I murdered a rock/ Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick/ I'm so mean, I make medicine sick.

Ali's narcissism - partly uncivil, partly amusing - is crucial to his legend. But then ego in sport is ubiquitous: essential yet often alarming, worn stylishly yet often destructive.

Two Formula One races ago in China, when Lewis Hamilton was accused of driving slow to stymie team-mate Nico Rosberg, Mercedes boss Niki Lauda said in praise: "Sure, everyone drives selfish. What do you think these guys are here to do? I call them egocentric b*******. That is the only way to win."

Lauda was speaking uncomfortable truths. Like big cats which mark their territory by spraying a scent, athletes are as instinctive in establishing their turf. Hamilton notionally races as a team driver but in truth wants to command that team: Beating a team-mate, the only rival with the same car, has a particular relish. It makes for an encounter between engines and egos and it can be fun yet offensive and it is a fine balance that sport strives for.

The ego-shorn athlete is a myth, for greatness is born of the idea of superiority, from the conviction that you are separate from normal people. An interviewer once tells Eric Cantona that people forget he's just a man, to which the footballer responds: "I'm not a man, I am Cantona." He pauses, then he smiles, but you're not sure if he is joking.

Cantona, as Alex Ferguson admiringly wrote in his first book, would practise by himself after team practice. Like most great athletes, he was functioning on two planes at once: Humble in the realisation he must improve, arrogant in his belief he is better than everyone. Similarly, Novak Djokovic concedes he's no Rafa on clay, yet to win on clay he has to believe he's indeed better than Rafa.

At its worst, ego is crude vanity; at its best, it is stirring self-belief which is respectfully articulated. In Monte Carlo last week, Rafa clapped a Djokovic sliding slice and Djokovic applauded a Berdych winner. Then they resumed their quest to maul each other.

Champions are propelled by ego but some pack it neatly in a bag. Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar was imperious on a field yet modest after the day's play. Tiger Woods, contrastingly, stayed a remote, entitled figure who never let his self-centred mask slip.

We're never sure, as spectators, where we stand with ego. We love it, we loathe it. We're cool about the collar up but not with third-person references. We wince at goal-scorers pointing at their names on their jerseys yet charmed when Usain Bolt showboats down the last 20m of the 100m final in Beijing. The smiling show-off we have a weakness for.

We don't mind talking tough, we do if you talk yourself up and we're unimpressed if you can't talk at all about your victorious opponent. Serena Williams' refusal to countenance defeat on court was uplifting, yet her reluctance - she has since changed - to credit a rival was unflattering. It's as if ego had clogged her circuits.

Television thrives on the vain star and marketing men relish it. The braggart is a juicy sell, he's Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a racy quote, it's F1 drivers with excessive testosterone. But, eventually, if "egocentric b*******" go on sniping and preening, it's plain tiresome. Eventually, it is ego carried elegantly which is unbeatable. And sometimes you must travel back in time, to a man with 18 Majors, and a sizeable ego, to find it.

At the 1982 US Open, Jack Nicklaus had finished, was in the joint lead and confident. Except Tom Watson, who had edged out Nicklaus at the 1977 British Open, magically chipped in from the rough on the 17th to win the US title. Nicklaus, according to a brilliant Golf Digest article, was stunned: "I can't believe it, I can't believe it happened again."

Later, he joked to Watson that "if it takes me the rest of my life, I'm gonna get you one of these times". But before that, before the trophy presentation, he had walked to the 18th, waited for Watson, and told the victor with quiet affection: "You did it to me again, you little son-of-a-b****. I couldn't be more proud of you."

Ego on hold, grace on show.

This article was first published on April 21, 2015.
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