All Things must Pass
Michael Johnson is an elite athlete of the 90s. Maybe THE athlete of that era. Revisiting all his glory, whilst researching our podcast, doesn’t leave anyone of his generation, my generation, untouched.
The Italians have a word for it…”Soggezione”. Somewhat in a state of awe, it is a fairly close translation.
Actually speaking to Michael hits you, at least me, like a time capsule to a better happier place. And these days we all need that. A sense of home and friends. A place where we feel loved.
Nostalgia is the intimate refuge of every man and woman in a world seemingly gone mad.
Today’s article risks drifting into this sugary nostalgia, and that’s never ideal. But madness is all around us and we are human after all.
Sport is the most important of the unimportant things and it is difficult to keep your mind, and pen, in its lane these days. Before you know it, everything around you, hitting your newsfeed, is reminding us that indeed times have changed and all things must pass.
Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up and has left you with no warning
It’s not always gonna be this grey
George would have liked This version.
That’s his lad; he’s not the postman’s ☺️.
The greyness Harrison describes is now everywhere, with so many examples that smell and taste, on reflection, like the conclusion of a certain epoch.
It’s 78 years since the end of WW2, basically a saeculum (a long human life).
The concept of the Fourth Turning seems, for the first time, actually very very real. Not just a cool marketing mechanism for a history book.
The book of the same name, by Strauss–Howe, suggests that historical events are associated with recurring generational personas. Each persona unleashes a new era (called a turning) lasting around 20–25 years, in which a new social, political, and economic climate exists. They are part of a larger cyclical “saeculum” (a long human life between 80 and 100 years). The theory states that a crisis recurs after every saeculum, where generational archetypes attack and weaken institutions in the name of autonomy and individualism, which eventually creates a tumultuous political environment.
According to Howe, we would now be in exactly this “crisis” phase. Our post-war film is clearly reaching its denouement in 2023. Our inevitable Fourth Turning.
The institutions, formed in the ashes and rubble in 1945, are now absolutely being “attacked and weakened” from all angles. The capital markets suggest that Bretton Woods is on its last legs. The level of our political leaders, everywhere, has never been lower or more shameless. And democracy, as we knew it, is almost a memory; the choices we are offered in the polling booth are frankly a scandal. Media and society are now polarised into screaming echo-chambers of outrageous intolerant propaganda. Anti-Semitism patently didn’t die with Auschwitz, and less-evolved religions out there are acting like the old Spanish Inquisition.
Babies in body bags, killed by arms, each one of which would feed the homeless for years.
In all this, new generations now seem to be so distant from their parents, on the warpath of conflict across the board: from climate to gender, to even free-speech.
These are the Fahrenheit 451 years.
In sport also, the grand palaces of FIFA, the IOC, the governing bodies, also seem to be on the verge of collapse and irrelevance.
It’s becoming clear to everyone that they really are no longer fit for purpose. They were set up in a different era, 100+ years ago, for a society that now just no longer exists. Their basic problem, and why they are all failing, is that they still think it does.
The inventors of our games, Britain’s historic public schools, have always considered sport absolutely as Corinthian and amateur, and indeed rather elitist if truth be told. It’s actually a very fair representation of England’s class system of that time. One could debate with credibility that many of sport’s flaws in 2023 come from their belief that this old world still exists, or should.
All things must pass. And so must the structures of sport. With a certain alacrity at this point.
Michael Johnson first came to my attention when he took the historic 17-year 200m record of a certain Pietro Mennea. Brits will remember the Barletta man well.
It will be difficult for many today to understand how big athletics was, certainly in the UK, in those years. The stars were all household names, and we willingly tuned in to both a Friday in Oslo, and a Saturday from Crystal Palace, to see Ovett and Coe throw world records at each other. Athletics was prime-time TV and was a sport with which we all had “connection”, via kid-next-door types like Mary Peters or Daley Thompson. They were a cheat-mode version of our sports days. I myself used to run sprints for the school on a Saturday morning, in athletics meets. I wasn’t so fast, but neither were the others. We all just ran and jumped. It was part of our fabric of sport. I challenge anyone to put into words the anticipation of an Olympic final; with Coe, Ovett and Cram.
Wtf happened to athletics?
It is one of the best (worst) examples of the complacency, and dereliction of duty, that our sports’ leaders have offered us in these 30 years. Closely run, like Wells and Mennea, by Serie A in Italy.
Both once enjoyed a cluster of elite talent, mass market popularity, huge cross-over and international appeal, and yet somehow still managed to throw it all away. Those guilty for that can still be found around the sports conference and awards scene. But I never hear any mea culpa.
All things must pass… And soon so will they.
These moments, a passing of the baton (pun intended), happen with clear signposts. Decades seldom end on the December 31 of a year ending with a 9. The time stamp can vary a touch.
The 60s, and its naive flower-power summers of love, ended with the jarring Charles Manson violence, so distant from Harrison’s Maharishi spiritual karma 2 years earlier.
The 70s, a generation of decline, grime and pessimism, the Years of Lead, (anni di piombo), ended with the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan. The 70s were not happy-clappy. As this article shows.
The 80s, with its Greed is Good Barbarians at the Gate, its Glasnost, all ended with people atop the Berlin War, literally ripping it down.
The 90s, increasingly obvious now, were then the fabulous Goldilocks Years, that ended with the Twin Towers and the dotcom bust.
The Noughties, when software ate the world, slammed to a halt with the Big Short Financial Crisis.
The 10s with COVID.
It is very understandable for people my age to be so drawn to the 90s of Michael Johnson. They were the prime of our twenties and thirties.
And not just for the political and macroeconomic growth and tranquility. One global benevolent policeman in Uncle Sam. It’s more than that. We all feel, perhaps incorrectly, that the world back then had more balance, tolerance, common sense, values, and respect. People had a better work ethic, standards of delivery, customer-care, and the HR department was basically only doing payroll runs, not fighting culture wars.
Im self-aware that all this sounds like 50+ white straight guys hankering after their youth, and what many call their ‘privilege‘.
It’s not. It’s about the rhythm of those turnings.
Every day, it’s clearer that the 90s were the upswing phase of the saeculum, the very positive first or second Turning. Today is the Fourth and final innings.
Likewise in sport. It feels all leading up to a very uncertain Quickening. A Perfect Storm.
The closing of a circle.
The 90s, back then in Goldilocks times, were the dawn of our sector, finally realising that it was sitting on an asset of immense value, as media content, in the start-up phase of the Cable PayTV business model, that would deliver us all a very good living and a fairer wage into the pockets of athletes. This bundle value-chain is now on its last legs; a high margin industry being forced by tech into today’s skinnier returns.
Back then, we had a growth mentality.
In 1992 the English Premier League was formed, leaving behind the ugliness of hooligans, Hillsborough and Bradford.
This video is better than 10,000 words. Possibly the greatest sport sizzle-reel of all time.
“It’s theatre, art, war, love.”
This was the 90s. Feel the optimism, the togetherness, the upward energy. None of the negativity and hating of today.
We also saw the professionalisation of rugby, the growth of golf with a generational talent like Tiger Woods. The explosion of the NBA in all its glory with Jordan and his vanquished pretenders. Mr. Johnson himself with his stiff back and gold shoes.
Talking of Gold…
These are our salad days, slowing being eaten away, just another Play for Today.
Those indeed were our, and Mr Johnson’s, salad days, but let’s be real… President Bartlett and Chandler Bing are now dead.
All things must pass, and we are where we are.
The future needs to be solved, also for sport.
I myself sit in an ivory tower on a glittering lake, everyday pulled in both directions: from the necessity for radical change, to nostalgia, and back.
This is the same required change Michael Johnson sees. He envisages the familiar playbook of new models for athletics: challenger leagues, short-form formats, serious modern marketing, etc; and he laments the inflexibility of the current leadership of the sport. He wants innovation, like what we’ve seen in other Olympic sports like, say, sailing, triathlon, lacrosse.
You can hear the whole show here. He is simply so articulate.
Johnson also often talks about the devaluation of running records, with the arrival of “super shoes”. A debate equally alive in golf, around modern equipment.
What Michael says doesn’t always go down well. Here on the Tobi Amusan…
As a commentator my job is to comment. In questioning the times of 28 athletes (not 1 athlete) by wondering if the timing system malfunctioned, I was attacked, accused of racism, and of questioning the talent of an athlete I respect and predicted to win. Unacceptable. I move on. — Michael Johnson
Accused of racism? A black man who had the decorum to hand back a gold medal for a relay, when one of his was subsequently found doping?
Tell me again we are not in a Fourth turning when real quality humans like Johnson are getting attacked like this.
It begs the question as to the definition of respect, value and glory in sport today? Is that too in its Fourth Turning? Has sporting glory now been devalued? Do newer fans even understand the question?
This is my hook for today’s Sunday Column
The big game last weekend was Manchester City v Chelsea.
In 1990s “old money“, Manchester City and Chelsea have never been big clubs. City for sure are what football fans call “a proper club”; the Kings Road United are not even that.
Until recently, when both were gifted with obscene amounts of money, these clubs were largely irrelevant and niche, never really troubling the almanac writers in terms of trophies won.
The “obscene monies” could be argued to be like Johnson‘s super shoes. They materially distort the “glory”, especially when we are forced to put a footnote asterisk against all their titles, for the alleged rules breaches, 115 in City’s case, (they previously got off on a technicality at UEFA).
Here below we start to see the full horror of what has been going on. How does that affect the titles they won in those years? Will they give back the medals, like Mr Johnson?
These examples, and how the EPL deal with Manchester City and Chelsea, will utterly define the Fourth Turning of European football. And I don’t believe this is hyperbole.
2024 will be a historic year. Our beautiful game is not on a good road. Glory and class is being mangled, like John Gotti thinking he’s elegant because he wears a $3000 Brioni suit.
Look at this video here and you can feel the change. This is one of those signposts.
To put an example on all this, as we must, to go beyond the philosophy, let’s do a poll.
Is there more “proper” footballing glory for Manchester City in their one post war title in 1967/68 with Mercer, Malcolm Allison, Bell, Lee, Summerbee, or the petrodollar bling of recent years?
I know my answer. Not even close.
Will anything that Oligarch Chelsea ever do remotely compete in glory with Clough’s Nottingham Forrest? Of course not.
I shall not bore the reader with other similes in the same theme. Just some names… Celtic, Aberdeen, Sampdoria, Villarreal, Leicester. True underdog glory.
Fiorentino Peres commented on the David Beckham signing with “He was born to play for this club”. Every single viewer knew what he meant.
It’s around those adjectives “proper” and “glorious”.
But this is nuanced. Far too easy for fans like us to hang onto “proper” as if there was a clear date line, before and after. Every generation conveniently draws the drawbridge on “proper” for their own era. That’s too simple, and not fair.
In Italy, Torino was the “proper” club in the 40s, before the air crash. Juventus was the crass car billionaire’s works team.
Hibernian in Edinburgh was the glorious Irish immigrant club before Glasgow Celtic basically stole all their players, with money.
Today, especially with young people, money undoubtedly gives a value and respect to things that in reality they don’t yet deserve. Bournemouth has never been a “proper” club. It’s where you went for your holidays and got candy floss and rock. It has nothing to do with traditional elite football. It’s found itself the recipient of postcode lottery luck. Nothing more. They reportedly want to buy Hibernian as a feeder club.
I am not having that.
Maybe things in football really are turning.
As fewer and fewer clubs in Europe can realistically win the Champions League, and most of those will soon only be English, fans loyal to other colours are changing, right under our nose.
They now rail against financial doping ”brands” and their tourist fans. In their heads they will discount that type of Kardashian football, won’t recognise its glory, and will double down on their own club.
Without the chances of actually competing and winning, they will focus more on local rivalries and base tribalism. They will find new causes to be passionate about, most likely political. Certainly feral.
You can see this in the increasing violence around stadia today with strident tifo banners and pyro. The football doesn’t even really matter anymore.
Without bombast and irony, I feel this “turning” as a version of Gangs of New York. In short, one can imagine it as some kind of footballing inverted snobbery.
We never win, you have all the trophies, but you have no class, history or respect. We do.
Some version of this fan?
At the end of a depressing article, this chap always raises a smile.
”You want some?”
All things, must pass. And they will. Just not how we expect them to. Of that, I’m certain.
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