One of the by-products of big events is memorable quotes. Because of the age-group of the competitors in the just concluded World Under-18 Athletic Championships, I did not put a premium on the utterance of a line that could last us the coming few decades.
But I was still hopeful that a coach, or an official, might let slip a howler that would add spice to the competition.
That didn’t happen. Instead, I have had to make do with Muthiora Kariara’s nationally televised charge during the running mates debate: “Banks have been making pornographic profits.”
The young and brave budding Deputy President obviously intended to use a different word but to our fortune, he couldn’t find it, hence our keepsake.
Nevertheless, everybody knew what he meant to say and that is why he came out a big winner.
Competitive sport gives us some of the best sound bites of our lives. In short sentences, they tell us long stories of endeavour made with great sacrifice, big hopes and shattering heartbreak. They illuminate a competitor’s mind and soul and leave us with varying feelings of admiration, concern, fear and even pity.
Competitive sport is where a life is born or dies within just one tournament, one meeting or even just one match. The desire to succeed is sometimes out of this world – and accounts for some of the most memorable statements. A whole life can be summarized in one sentence.
In my experience, if you are looking for that quote that will be remembered for a long time to come, the best time to talk to the competitor is during the preparation stage – and not so much during the competition itself. Winning and losing usually happens long before the referee’s starting whistle or the starter’s gun.
That is when the concentration reaches the focus of a laser and as long as you are careful not to surprise a competitor with an unexpected appearance that could elicit hostility, you could be in for something good.
Be careful to avoid rude intrusions. “We are not born athletes, we make ourselves athletes,” Edna Kiplagat’s husband, Gilbert Koech, who gave up his own track career to coach his wife and run the home while she competed, told director Jackie Lebo in the film “Gun to Tape”.
Gilbert was describing life in modern day Sparta. Watching him speak, you are left in no doubt that every last cent of those millions that these athletes bank is earned.
The art of delivering the best quotes has also evolved. In times past, you just blurted out what was on your mind. It made for very authentic statements. But during these days of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, you need to be careful. We now live in the era of the pre-meditated sound bite.
Speaking off the top of your head can be quite hazardous. The challenge is to retain your naturalness as you do that.
I have noticed our people provide the best sound bites when speaking in Sheng or Swahili. They speak English poorly. I have a good collection of Swahili quotes, especially from the stands of football stadiums that I have been compiling over the years and they make for fascinating reading. Football and Swahili make an especially good mix.
English only gets interesting when interspersed with Swahili words, which is how many Kenyans speak informally anyway.
If you want to get the best sports quotes in English, you have to look beyond our borders. On this score, we are a desert. There is no sports official in Kenya who can speak like my favourite European football manager of all time, Liverpool Football Club’s legendary Bill Shankly who once said: “At a football club, there’s a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don’t come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.”
Shankly is the man who, when filling a hotel registration form during one of Liverpool’s European trips, wrote as his occupation “Football,” and as his address, “Anfield.” When the receptionist insisted he writes where he lived, he told her: “Lady, in Liverpool, there is only one address that matters and that is where I live.” And that was that.
Below is a selection of 10 of my favourite sports quotes. My comprehensive list is, as you might imagine, a tome. I have tried hard to find quotes made in English by our sportsmen and women, coaches and officials but I turned up only one. Maybe I missed something and you could send it to me. That would be welcome indeed. I wish you a good weekend with these quotes which I have compiled in order of preference:
10. “I hate to sound like an old coach but I am an old coach. I was coaching when the Dead Sea was only sick.”
This was said by Bob Green, lauded by ESPN, the US-based global cable and satellite television sports television channel as “the greatest quote in college football.” He said this after his team lost narrowly. Green is a former Montana Tech football coach. I like this quote because it has echoes of Muhammad Ali, who is in a class of his own in my book as the incomparable master of the punchline.
9. “I quit school in the sixth grade because of pneumonia. Not because I had it, but because I couldn’t spell it.”
Thomas Rocco Barbella, better known as Rocky Graziano, was an honest man, as this plain speaking shows. Considered one of the greatest knockout specialists in boxing history, Graziano was once the world middleweight champion. In 1955, he released a biography titled Somebody Up There Likes Me. It documented his turbulent life and was the subject of an Oscar-winning film of the same title.
8. “We can’t win at home. We can’t win on the road. As general manager, I just can’t figure out where else to play.”
And neither could our own AFC Leopards before Robert Matano’s return. That is what this quote by the American athlete, Pat Williams, reminded me of. He has said many witty things that people remember but this cry in the wilderness put against the terrible fortunes of our famished big Cats stood out for me.
7. “I spent 90 per cent of my money on women and drink. The rest I wasted.”
An alcoholic lives in an alternative universe and George Best was not any different. He was one of the world’s greatest footballers who only never played at the World Cup because he was a world apart from his pedestrian Northern Irish countrymen. Best blew his huge fortune and this is how he reported it.
6. “Take that bandage off. And what do you mean about your knee? It’s Liverpool’s knee!”
Tommy Smith did 16 seasons for Liverpool FC under manager Bill Shankly who was so taken up with his toughness that he remarked: “Tommy Smith wasn’t born, he was quarried”. But once Smith came to the legendary manager wearing a bandage on his knee. He explained that he had injured it. A livid Shankly couldn’t take it, hence the memorable order above.
5. Statistics are like bikinis—they show a lot but not everything.”
For a man whose career as a baseball player earned him two World Series championships and who as the boss was named Manager of the Years three times in 1995, 2001 and 2008 and who finished his managerial career ranked 14th in the all-time list, you would have expected Victor Piniella – or Sweet Lou, as they called him – to have a healthier respect for statistics. But it seems his mind was elsewhere.
4. “I’ve had more clubs than Jack Nicklaus.”
Tommy Docherty was sacked so often as a football manager necessitating that he jump from one club to another – sometimes within the same year – that he once made the observation above about himself. There’s even a sequel to it. Hopeful that Leeds United might recall him after his sacking after just 44 days on the job, he said: “If the Leeds chairman tells me ‘come’, I will go like a shot.”
3. “How can the referee allow that goal? He was so biased! Even their goalkeeper was off-side!”
This was Moses Akaranga, once AFC Leopards vice-chairman, heatedly disagreeing with a losing result that befell his team. When he said this, some people around him couldn’t help letting out a laugh, despite the circumstances. But as I noted earlier, unless they are speaking in Sheng or Swahili, our people rarely say anything memorable. That is why Akaranga’s howler is the only one that makes my today’s top 10.
2. “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure them it is much, much more serious than that.”
Of the many quotes attributed to Bill Shankly, this is my favourite. It is also his most famous. Many people around the world, mostly sportspeople, have routinely substituted “football” with whatever their passion is to sustain a daily motivation.
1. “I’m bad! I’ve done new things for this fight. I’ve been chopping trees! I’ve wrestled with an alligator! I’ve tussled with a whale! I’ve handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail! That’s bad! I’m bad! Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! Bad, man, bad! I cut the light of my bedroom, hit the switch and was in bed before it was dark. Fast, man, fast! I mean, I’m so mean I make medicine sick!”
Every single one of Muhammad Ali’s quotes is memorable. I will leave you with this one which regularly draws my laughter even in low moments. He was, still is, and will always be, The Greatest.