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Insights: Sports

As the number of injured professional athletes rises, compensation is finally catching up
George Vecsey
From the Print Edition:
Raquel Welch, Jul/Aug 01

(continued from page 2)

Michael Jordan was responsible for transcending race. He got to endorse major brands, won six championships, talked trash, swaggered, and backed it up. In a team sport, Jordan was blessed with worthy opponents, who beat him sometimes, but it is hardly Tiger Woods's fault that he has no Bird, no Magic.

Tiger's only opponent is the course. He is in a world of his own even though the Masters was merely his sixth major, compared with
the 18 won by Jack Nicklaus. One-third there, people said.

With his four straight majors in a demanding age, Tiger seems at the pinnacle with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting steak, Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game and 50 points-per-game average for an entire season, Byron Nelson's victories in 11 straight golf tournaments, Edwin Moses's 122 consecutive victories in the 400-meter hurdles and Johnny Unitas's 47-game touchdown passing streak.

Tiger is already up there with Mark Spitz's seven swimming gold medals and seven Olympic records at the 1972 Summer Games, Eric Heiden's five Olympic speedskating gold medals in 1980, Bob Beamon's long jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches in Mexico City, in 1968, which lasted 23 years but seems permanent, eternal, because it was accomplished in the rarefied air of the Olympics.

Fans are generally classicists about records. Martina Navratilova won six straight Grand Slam championships in a string that straddled 1983 and '84, but never captured all four titles in one calendar year. Her tennis federation handed over the $1 million bonus it had put aside for a true Grand Slam, but very quickly the public said, "No way, gotta do it in one calendar year."

Maybe Martina was a bit too smart and outspoken for everybody at the time. Four years later, in 1988, Steffi Graf won all four major championships in one year plus the Olympic gold medal in Seoul -- a Golden Grand Slam, it was dubbed -- yet the chorus grumbled, "She is no Martina." That's the way it works.

Contemporary athletes usually are held in suspicion because of modern luxuries. The baseball is juiced and so are the players. (McGwire has chemists while Babe Ruth trained on vats of beer.) Tennis players use graphite racquets that are Uzis next to Rod Laver's wooden pea-shooter.

Tiger's clubs and golf balls are the equivalent of a spaceship compared with the Lindbergh-age equipment that Bobby Jones used back in his true Grand Slam back in 1930, but nobody seems to hold that against Tiger.

There is some other factor going. The crowd likes pizzazz. It loves a certain invincibility. But very few athletes go beyond numbers into the realm of supernatural heat or cool. Jim Brown. Sandy Koufax. Muhammad Ali.

Ultimately, there are two athletes with whom I can compare Tiger Woods.


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