The American painter, the Cuban heavyweight and the Soviet weightlifter all thrived in the middle years of the Cold War, when sport delivered on its ancient promise of mythology and metaphor. These were the bygone days of superpower sports rivalries, of symbolism and subtext, with the Olympic Games as a referendum on ideologies.
It was possible to be scared of an athlete and what he stood for. It was the disinformation age.
No one anywhere could touch Alekseyev. For years, every kilo he lifted was another victory for collectivism. But we argued endlessly about Stevenson and Muhammad Ali and would they ever fight and if so, who would win? Our guy and their guy. Money, embargo and the dictators Fidel Castro and Don King kept them apart. Ali was thicker and stronger and faster, we said, and Stevenson, an elegant and unbeatable mystery, had only ever cuffed around Latvians or Estonians a couple rounds at a time. He'd never last past the sixth. On the rare occasions we saw him box, he was lean, upright and murderous. Silent. Unsmiling. A killer of lesser U.S. talents like Duane Bobick and John Tate. Still, we assumed as a matter of religious conviction, political science and apple pie calculus that Ali would beat him, badly, and that the outcome would be the same if we sent Joe Frazier or George Foreman after him. Maybe even Ken Norton. Our gloves were loaded with democracy, after all, so our guys were punching for freedom. Just like Popeye or cartoon Joe Louis! The divine fix was in.
How childish and ridiculous it all seems from this distance. How the world and politics and sports have changed, how diffused and complex our fears and passions are today. How hard it is to define ourselves without a comic book arch-nemesis sitting across the ring.
A few years ago at the Asian Games, I watched weightlifting's last real rock star, Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran, electrify a small, hot room in Doha, Qatar. Every bit as dominant in that prehistoric sport as Vasily Alekseyev was, Rezazadeh never captured the American imagination -- in part because Iran remains an insufficient enemy, an ill-defined villain. I sat that night with Mu Shuangshuang, the Chinese women's superheavyweight champion, another insufficient enemy. She was too round and cheerful to play the part, and for the moment, the Chinese are as much our manufacturing partner as they are a political or ideological opponent. So when Holley Mangold and Sarah Robles get to London this summer and confront Zhou Lulu and Meng Suping, the likelihood that it becomes symbolic of the struggle between the imperatives of capital and proletariat is zero.
But in the oversimplified 1970s, everything seemed a symbol. Nixon and Watergate, Mao and Ping Pong, Vietnam, Kissinger in Paris, Andy Warhol and Diana Ross and Reggie Jackson at Studio 54 and the whole paranoid decade ricocheting from weirdness to weirdness. Mentally and emotionally exhausted by the 1960s, maybe this was America losing its mind. Even the music went wrong. And however you parse the politics, we cast out a graduate of the Naval Academy and architect of our submarine program because he was "soft on defense" and hired in his place an actor who had once played a submarine commander in the movies.
This was the unraveling age Neiman painted.
At his best, Neiman caught some of the dynamism and immediacy of sports, its rush and tumble, some of its lurid color. It was a kind of art and a kind of journalism and sprang not just from the needs of glossy magazine editors, but from American modernists
like George Bellows and from a history of sports and painting that went back 2,500 years.
At its worst, the work felt like a shtick, like 1970s variety show patter -- "Here's Leroy Neiman painting LIVE" -- while you looked on and waited for Jim McKay to throw to Chris Schenkel down in the winners' circle or Tony Orlando backstage at the Pantages. Like another design icon of that loud and empty decade, Vera Neumann, by 1980 Neiman was as ubiquitous and harmless as wallpaper or bed linen.
Even the best of his paintings nodded at a kind of incisive kitsch, but this week's obituary comparisons to cottage industrialist Thomas Kinkade are flat wrong. Where Neiman often aspired to some of the contradictions of art or the sharp edges of documentary, Kinkade's reassuring nonsense seems intended only as anti-anxiety medication, as Christmas decoration or a piece of children's furniture. Kinkade's paintings are a cult of escapism, $100 million worth of evidence that our retreat from reality continues.
In these atomized, terrorized times, I miss the monolith next door, the single slow-moving monster under the bed. He's knowable. Maybe even real. Maybe he can be reasoned with. Or bought off.
And it's a deceptively simple thing to say what you are when you can say with assurance what you aren't. The map of the world seemed smaller then, bounded on all sides by an "us" or a "them," and Americans could locate ourselves anywhere and everywhere as the just opposite of godless Communism. The easy categories, the mustache-twirling villains and the state-sponsored James Bond propaganda from both sides of the Iron Curtain encouraged us to do so.
Stevenson. Alekseyev. The Cold War. You knew your enemy. We stood across a rabbit hole six decades wide throwing money at one another until the streets ran red, white and blue. This was back before patriotism was entirely repackaged as a brand strategy; back before it was only the cereal, the soda, the shoe. It all seems so quaint and long ago.