What is the use of great sporting character when you choose to employ it only in the service of sport?

Do great sportsmen dream anymore? And does it carry them beyond the confines of their strictly defined vocation into territory that might be slippery, at best, downright dangerous and suicidal, at worst?

At a time when Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have turned the most mediocre among us into self-obsessed narcissists and self-appointed experts on everything that matters — a time when ‘heroes’ are easy to come by and mere success and celebrity are synonymous with heroism — are there any real sports heroes left who can remind us of the men and women who, in the past, rose way above their calling to leave a lasting imprint on history?

Are there still legendary figures in sport who dare to stretch their grids, leave their comfort zone, look way beyond their horizon at the big picture, and then go on to dream big — all simply because they want to make a difference to the society of which they are part, and not merely as gifted athletes?

As I ponder this question on the eve of the 50th anniversary of one of the most memorable speeches made in the 20th century — Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream address to a crowd of 250,000 gathered at the National Mall for the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 — I wonder if today’s sportspersons ever feel the inclination, not to speak of the obligation, to look out the window anymore.

Are there no causes left to fight for? Or, has the world in which we live become so uniformly just and wonderfully agreeable a place in the last half century that sportspersons can remain cocooned in their own specialness and stay aloof of everything happening around them?

Maybe there is another way of looking at it. Perhaps sport has become too important in itself, perhaps modern professional sportsmen are so heavily burdened by the demands of their day job that they have little time left to worry about anything else except their careers, and the records and riches that beckon?

Then again, there was a time when noble men made time for such things — not always in the physical context of chronological time but time in their hearts. And the first name that comes to mind, in this context, is that of Muhammad Ali.

Great example

Ali was the single greatest example of how a heroic sportsperson — one possessed of just the right mix of political awareness and social cognition — managed to use his iconic image to act as a catalyst for historic, unprecedented change in society.

Like King, Ali had a dream too — a dream that was not defined merely by his genius as an athlete, or by the ropes within which he constructed his legend in the ring.

Like another great man, also a keen lover of sport — Nelson Mandela — would in the years to come in a far more important context (fighting to dismantle the wretched apartheid system in South Africa), Ali knew not only how to dream big but also held the deep conviction that he had it in him to turn it into a reality.

“If a little dreaming is dangerous, the cure for it is not to dream less but to dream more, to dream all the time,” wrote Marcel Proust.

Ali, and the great pioneering African-American Jackie Robinson before him, as well as the intellectually astute Arthur Ashe after him, chose — to paraphrase King — “not to be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But what is the use of great sporting character when you choose to employ it only in the service of an activity that, by itself, is largely meaningless?

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” asked C. L. R. James rather rhetorically in his preface to Beyond a Boundary.

Ali knew of no boundaries. Even at age 22, when he stunned the world by beating the seemingly indestructible Sonny Liston to claim the heavyweight championship for the first time, in February 1964, the man then known as Cassius Clay believed that true greatness would never be achieved by just ‘floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee’ in a boxing ring.

“Sport has the power to change the world,” thundered Mandela, more than 40 years after King’s much-acclaimed speech and Ali’s crowning as the world champion.

The occasion was the 1995 rugby World Cup in South Africa. Many African leaders believed that Mandela was making a mistake by associating himself with a lily-white sport and offering it the legitimacy it craved at that time.

But the great man held his ground, saying that all Africans belonged to what he called “the Rainbow Nation.”

“It [sport] has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they can understand. Sport can create hope where there was only despair,” said Mandela.

Of course, the man who is arguably the most sagacious post-War politician — and inarguably its most heroic — was right.

But the medium still needs a messenger. Are there any out there in the big wide world of sport?