07 June 2023

The gold medals of being

A few months ago, Indian wrestlers launched a protested demanding investigation into the allegations of sexual harassment by Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, a BJP member of parliament, during the time he headed the Wrestling Federation of that country.

The wrestlers, after they were unceremoniously removed from the protest site, vowed to toss their Olympic gold medals into the river Ganga. The announcement sparked a protest against the wrestlers, where it was claimed that the medals belonged as much to India and every Indian. Technically, medals are the private property of those who won them, but when emotions run high such technicalities tend to lose their carry.    

Suffice to say, though, that the medal-controversy is not central to the matter at hand: the reasons for the protests. May truth and justice prevail.

The wrestlers were inspired, they say, by Muhammed Ali. That story is well known. This is how Ali described it:

‘I came back to Louisville after the Olympics with my shiny gold medal. Went into a luncheonette where black folks couldn't eat. Thought I'd put them on the spot. I sat down and asked for a meal. The Olympic champion wearing his gold medal. They said, “We don't serve niggers here.” I said, 'That's okay, I don't eat 'em.' But they put me out in the street. So I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it.’

Ali, as Cassius Clay, won the light heavyweight gold in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was admired and loved. His defiant act had a massive impact on the struggle to end racism in the USA. In 1996, during the Atlanta Olympics Ali was awarded a replacement gold medal. Consolation, that’s all. He played a part and the battle is far from over.

George Foreman says Ali was not ‘The Greatest.’ There will always be debates over such things. Rocky Marciano (Rocco Francis Marchegiano) is the only heavyweight champion never to be defeated. Perhaps because he had just six title fights and retired at the age of 32. Beside the point.

Ali, who died on June 3, 2016, was more than a great fighter in the boxing ring. He fought outside it. He fought when he spoke. He fought as he lived.

In one of this last interviews, Ali detailed how he would like to be remembered: ‘I would like them to say that he took a few cups of love, one teaspoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness, took one quart of laughter, one punch of concern and then mixed willingness and happiness, he added lots of faith and stirred it up well.’

Everyone, including boxers and other sports personalities, have life philosophies.  Ali’s recipe sounds wholesome. Maybe that’s how he lived. In his public persona, he seems to have, but that’s what we’ve seen. Maybe that was how he was in private as well. Foreman himself says that Ali was the greatest human being he had ever met. Coming from a longtime rival and someone who, as mentioned above, didn’t think Ali was the ‘Greatest Ever,’ this is certainly the highest praise imaginable.

Ali, Foreman, the great boxers they defeated and who defeated them, Marciano and others including the Indian wrestlers (those who protested and those who have not) are great in their own right. They are public figures. They are subjected to greater scrutiny. They are held to higher standards.

And then there are others, unknown and unsung, who have more or less subscribed to Muhammed Ali’s recipe for wholesome living. They are spoken of in much the same terms but only by the few people who they know and who knew them. Loved ones and friends, mostly.

They never won gold medals. They may have suffered injustice and voiced their objection. They just didn’t have medals to throw into a river with the world’s media as witness. Ali probably knew this.

Today, as I write, I remember Muhammed Ali. An inspiration and a hero, ever since I read his autobiography ‘The Greatest: my own story,’ published in 1975 when he was yet to retire. The song ‘Black Superman’ by Johnny Wakelin and The Kinshasa Band (released in 1974) is remembered not only for the catchy tune. Ali did float like a butterfly and stung like a bee. In and out of the ring. He hung up his gloves, but boxed on with his voice and words. Right to the end.

No one ever gave him a gold medal for being. ‘He loved, had patience, was generous and kind, knew how to laugh and to make people smile, had will, was happy and was strong in his faith. He stirred it up well. 


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri

All those we've loved before

Reflections on waves and markings

A chorus of National Anthems

Saying what and how

'Say when'

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra

The loves of our lives

The right time, the right person

The silent equivalent of a thousand words

Crazy cousins are besties for life

Unities, free and endearing

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!"

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis

The revolution is the song

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart