Funny how the mind works. The great Teofilo Stevenson died on Monday, and when I heard the news I thought of another great Cuban athlete, Alberto Juantorena, and then I thought of Dev. Let me explain.
Stevenson was three times gold-medal winner in the Olympics as a heavyweight boxer, and he almost certainly would have got a fourth if his country hadn’t boycotted the 1984 Games. But Stevenson was more than just a great athlete. In the West and particularly in the US, the usual progress for a talented amateur is to the ranks of the professionals. Not Stevenson. He was offered huge amounts of money – a million dollars was talked about. His reply: “What is a million dollars compared to the love of eight million people?”
Alberto Juantorena was another Cuban athlete idolized by his people. He was a big man, said to have a nine-foot stride.. He competed in the 1976 Olympics and in a unique performance won both the 400 and the 800 metres. At the height of his fame, he was visited at his home in Cuba by a journalist. The reporter wondered aloud why Juantorena and his family chose to live in a house packed with relatives – parents, aunts, uncles, cousins. As a hugely successful athlete, surely he could afford a home where he and his wife and children could have some privacy? Juantorena looked surprised. “This is my family. Why do you want to take me away from my family?”
And Dev? Well I don’t know if Dev was ever an athlete, and even thinking about him in a singlet and shorts makes me feel a bit weak. But on St Patrick’s Day in 1943, he made a speech which has been repeatedly referred to and mocked, as showing Dev to be absurdly backward-looking. “The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit”.
If you read the speech in full, it does indeed have a certain old-fashioned tone to it. But you’ll also notice that de Valera was outlining his vision of a country that valued other things than the material. Yes, thousands had to emigrate when Dev held power; but our present financial mess shows what happens when pursuit of wealth dominates everything else. Stevenson’s refusal to turn professional, Juantorena’s love of his extended family, Dev’s vision of a country wise enough to put relationships and things of the spirit above material wealth, all share the same theme: money, at the national and the personal level, should be servant, not master. There’s more to life than capitalism.