1972. Forty years ago.
I have lately been thinking about Eddy Merckx and Bobby Fischer. Both of these men in their younger days dominated their field of sport. Forty years ago, Merckx was in the middle of winning his five Tour de France titles while Fischer was finally charging and stomping his way to the world chess title, leaving carnage and devastation in his wake.
The United States at large does not pay attention to achievements in chess or cycling, unless one of our own does real well. And then, they have to do Real Well.
Bobby Fischer did Real Well. He won multiple U.S. Championships, never losing when he competed and once winning with a perfect 11-0 score . Chess had such a draw for him that it pretty much crowded out everything else that us mere mortals hold precious; family and friendships went by the wayside when they no longer gave what he considered needed support. He accused players from the old Soviet Union of collusion, something not hard to believe. He demanded that game schedules accomodate his religious practice [he was a member of the Armstrong Church of God and rested on the Sabbath], once leaving the Tunis Interzonal [a qualifying tournament for the world championship] when his demands were not met. He was leading the tournament at the time.
Finally, in 1970 he decided, after encouragement from a select group of chess people, to make another go at the world title. He won the Buenos Aires Interzonal by 3½ points and qualified to play in the candidate matches for the chance to play Boris Spassky, the then world title holder. The result of the matches was unprecedented. His first victim was Mark Taimanov of the USSR. Fischer won with a score of 6-0. People stared. This was not the way a Soviet player was supposed to fail. Fischer’s next opponent was the Dane Bent Larsen, the only non-Soviet bloc player who could seriously confront Fischer. He fared no better, going down with a 0-6 score. That left Tigran Petrosian, the former world champion, in the Candidates’ final. Bobby won the first game and lost the next. Ahh, perhaps he is human after all. But after three draws, Fischer’s steam was up again and he won the next four games for a final score of 6½-2½. During this time the American had won 20 straight games. You would have to go back to the late 1800s to find a better run.
The world title match took place in Iceland in 1972. Fischer ended up winning causing many people to loose sleep in the process. From there he went into seclusion except for a return match with Boris Spassky in the early 1990s. He alienated most of the chess world and his home country by his vitriolic statements regarding Jews and the September 11th attacks on the United States. He passed away in Iceland in January of 2008 at the age of 64.
Eddy Merckx dominated cycling during the same time, but without the rancor. I first really learned of Merckx from an article in Bicycling magazine. What struck me was that he behaved as a gentleman. This was quite a difference from Bobby Fischer. The Great Ones are still human and their natures and qualities will show through eventually.
So, forty years later, here’s to a couple of men who were the best in their field