Our Town: What it takes to be a champion

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"Djokovic wins his 19th Grand Slam! So what does drive him so?"

Why do some seem to have a burning desire to win, no matter what the cost? Some call it the fire in the belly.

In Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road,” the father constantly and insistently tells his son to keep ‘carrying the fire.” The idea was never fully explained in the book but it invariably means the will to keep going no matter how much exhaustion, pain, hunger and despair you may feel.

In all cultures, there are some that are ‘carrying the fire.” These are our heroes and may include athletes, artists, actors, writers or directors depending upon your preference. Each week there is yet another example of someone who is ‘carrying the fire.”

This week is was Novak Djokovic winning the French Open in Paris in five grueling sweat-soaked sets.

There are many who seem to possess this fire in the belly and they tend to be immortalized. In sports, we have Babe Ruth, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Michael Jordan. In art, we have Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Jean Michel Basquiat, Vincent Van Gogh. In literature we have Marcel Proust, Cervantes, Victor Hugo, D.H. Lawrence. In cinema we have Federico Fellini, Yasujiro Ozu and Alfonso Cuaron.

These are the great mystic geniuses of the world and they all have one thing in common. They are spending their lives trying to repair their lost and damaged childhoods.

A perfect example of this is seen in Alfonso Cuaron’s film “Roma” made in 2018 and which went on the receive 10 Academy Award nominations. The film is a recreation of Cuaron’s anguished childhood growing up in Mexico City.

This film will no doubt eventually be seen as one of the great films yet it is merely an exquisitely simple black and white portrayal of a middle-class life in Mexico City in the year 1970.

The central character is the young actress Yalitza Aparicio who plays Cleo a live-in maid. You can see that Cuaron has borrowed heavily from Japanese filmmaker Ozu in his focus on daily family life with meals, mini-dramas, bickering, barking dogs and honking cars in a busy city.

But through it all, one feels the pain of Cuaron’s lost past and the deep respect and longing he has for this simple maid Cleo who loved him so. It reminded me of Gustave Flaubert’s novel “A Simple Heart” the French masterpiece also about a live-in maid named Felicite and her simple and loving heart.

Psychoanalyst Hannah Segal suggested that all creation “is really a recreation of a once loved and once whole, but now lost and ruined object, a ruined internal world and self.

It is when the world within us is destroyed when it is dead and loveless when our loved ones are in fragments, and when we ourselves in helpless despair – it is then that we must re-create our world anew, reassemble the pieces, infuse life into the dead fragments, re-create life.”

This is clearly what the greatest artists do but it is not limited to the arts. I think sports allows the genius athlete to do the same thing. Only those who have suffered the most in childhood are able to withstand the impossibly difficult climb to the top.

In golf, Ben Hogan is often seen as the best ball-striker on earth and the term ‘digging it out of the dirt’ refers to his amazing work ethic on the driving range.

But what many do not realize is that Ben Hogan witnessed his father committing suicide when Ben was a boy and what Ben Hogan spent his life doing was ‘digging up’ his dead father out of the dirt via his grueling work ethic.

As for our tennis star, Novak Djokovic, he was raised in war-torn Serbia and heard many a bomb explode in his neighborhood. This gave him his fire in the belly and his reason to keep “carrying the fire” as Cormac McCarthy once wrote.

Babe Ruth was an orphan. Tiger Woods was a black child in an all-white neighborhood. The list goes on and on. Those who are ‘carrying the fire’ are the only ones who get to the top, remain at the top and become immortalized.

To quote Hannah Segal “all artists aim at immortality; their objects must not only be brought back to life but also the life has to be eternal.” That holds for artists but also for athletes.

The champion’s name is engraved on a silver trophy which is designed to last forever. The champions give blood, sweat and tears not only to receive checks, applause, trophies and fame. They are also compelled to win in an effort to repair all the damage done to them in their earliest years. And we are the lucky audience who gets to watch them make the repairs.

On occasion, we get to see behind the curtain when an athlete chooses to reveal the pain.

Naomi Osaka shocked to world when she walked out of the French Open last week. But that is unusual to say the least. What is more common is to see an exhausted champion cling to the trophy and provide a smile that says that finally, all is right with his world.

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