James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John F Kennedy; in a way, they were the lucky ones, cut down tragically young, but taken from us before the ravages of time and the loss of their powers could transform our admiration and wonder into pity and regret. Those feelings are just two in a range of competing emotions evoked by Muhammad Ali's current fund-raising trip to Europe. Ali is among the greatest sportsman of all time. I would go further, and say that when you compile a list of the great figures of the 20th century, Ali deserves a place alongside Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein. My initial feeling is that as none of those three great men spent their declining years being hauled around in a golf buggy, nor should Ali.
I went to see the great man in Manchester, where he visited Ricky Hatton's gym and attended a fund-raising dinner, and what I found particularly sad was the fact that the Louisville Lip, as he was dubbed in his early days, no longer speaks at all. I am old enough to remember his trips to Britain in the 1960s and '70s when he was a fairly frequent visitor to whip up interest for his fights, which frankly was never much of a problem.
Talk shows would fall over themselves to get him into their studios, knowing that alongside his publicity obligations, he would engage in discussion on any topic the host broached, with humour, occasional insight, and sometimes blind fury when the subject touched on politics or race. The point is that Ali was almost as famous for his wit and powerful advocacy as he was for his lightning quick feet and fists, and it is as piteous to see that power stripped from him as it is to witness his physical decline.
When he lit the flame at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 the ravages of Parkinson's disease were already painfully apparent. But the fact that the champ could still communicate and, despite shaking terribly, still get around under his own steam, almost served to underline his physical prowess. At that stage he was manifestly still fighting the disease, like the great battler he has always been. But now he is on the ropes, and sad though it may seem, we have to accept the possibility that soon he will be on the canvas.
Ali does, of course, travel with a substantial entourage, alongside his wife Lonnie, and it must be said some of the security chaps, unsmiling, wearing big shades, do little to add to an atmosphere of joy and celebration around the great champion. So does it strip the man of his last vestiges of dignity to parade him like some curiosity, like the Elephant Man, at Hatton's gym, and other very public engagements?
I cannot give you any definitive answer to that. My grandmother died of Parkinson's disease, at a much more advanced age than Ali's 67, well cared for in an old people's home, but the condition is no respecter of a sufferer's dignity, and gran's decline was hell for her, and painful for us to witness. One hopes Ali does not suffer, and is able to appreciate the love and respect people like Hatton have for him, but the overriding impression of his travels is that the whole thing is something of a circus, and it would be a kindness to leave him at peace in his lovely home with those closest to him.
My views, as it happens, are shared by Naseem Hamed, a much-lesser boxer than Ali but who aspired to be his equal as a showman. The former bantamweight and featherweight champion said in a radio interview he thought the Ali roadshow was an undignified spectacle. Hamed last boxed on May 18, 2002, and was quoted as saying he retired to spend more time with his family. Now he reveals he quit because of painful hand injuries, only relieved by cortisone injections. The treatment caused his hands to swell so much his gloves had to be cut off at the end of a contest. Any return to the ring - and there are constantly rumours - is too painful to contemplate, he says. More evidence that boxing is the toughest game of all, and those who retire unscarred are the lucky ones.
As the US Open championship heads towards its second week, most of the tennis players will have been playing the game since they were seven or eight years old, or even younger. This raises the question of how pushy parents have to be to raise a champion. The answer, I suspect, is very pushy indeed, although hopefully stopping short of Jelena Dokic's father, who once threatened to drop a bomb to avenge his daughter's defeat in the Australian Open. In this hothouse atmosphere, Judy Murray, mother of Andy and Jamie, has always kept a commendably level head, and now runs a website pointing out some of the pitfalls facing parents of prodigies. Parents should consult it before pitchforking their offspring into the crazy world of tennis.