KIA KAHA, JONAH
In the history of sport there are athletes who have been more than just champions, athletes who have been able to draw a clear line, radically transforming their sport and inevitably becoming the yardstick for all future generations.
The best known example is Michael Jordan, capable of revolutionizing basketball not only thanks to his monstrous physical, athletic and technical skills, but also through a unique and controversial character, capable of attracting media attention around the world, definitively transforming the NBA into a global show, a gold mine for sponsors and television. Probably the greatest icon that a sport has ever had.
However, there are others like him.
At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, Dick Fosbury not only won the gold medal in high jumps, but he revolutionized the technique of his sport, becoming the pioneer of dorsal (and not frontal) climbing, giving birth to the modern high jumps we all know.
Edward Moses literally changed the rhythm of the 400m hurdles, experimenting the technique of the 13 steps between one obstacle and another and dominating the world scene for a decade, between the 70s and the 80s.
Then there are Babe Ruth for baseball, Carl Lewis first and Usain Bolt then for speed, Roger Federer for tennis, Michael Phelps for swimming, Diego Armando Maradona for soccer, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson for boxing.
Well, the Michael Jordan of rugby is called Siona Tali Lomu, aka Jonah Lomu.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, on May 12, 1975 from Tongan parents, Jonah Lomu grew up in Mangere, a difficult neighborhood on the outskirts of Auckland. A complicated childhood in an even more complicated family. As so often happens, it is sport that saves him. Yes, because Jonah has something special: he is 1.96 m tall, weighs about 120 kg, but is able to run 100 meters in 10.8 seconds. Practically a monster.
Enrolled at Wesley College, he makes his debut in 1993. He plays as a wing but has the physique of a second row. The first convocation with the All Blacks comes in 1994: the youngest All Black in history. In 1995 he signes with the Auckland Blues franchise and he’s called up to the 1995 World Cup, the real crossroads of world rugby history.
In fact, you can say that rugby divides into two main eras: rugby before 1995 and rugby after 1995. The World Cup played in South Africa in 1995 gave the definitive start to the birth of professionalism. It is the post-apartheid World Cup, won by the hosts with Nelson Mandela who hands the cup to the white captain of the Springboks François Pienaar, but it is also and above all the World Cup of Jonah Lomu, the giant of the All Blacks who eliminated England in the semifinals by scoring 4 tries and walking (yes, walking...) on the body of the Englishman Mike Catt.
Teammates and opponents start talking about Jonah Lomu. Televisions start talking about Jonah Lomu. The world starts talking about Jonah Lomu. For the first time, the world talks about rugby and does it through Jonah Lomu.
"He was a freak of nature at the time. He was 110kg but could run like the wind. Having that on the end of your chain rather than in the forward pack was a revolution of the game" (Justin Marshall)
"He was a freight train in ballet shoes. Other players could go through players, other players could go around players, Lomu could do it all" (Peter Fitzsimmons)
To understand the impact of this World Cup and Jonah Lomu, just think that Clint Eastwood himself, 14 years later in his movie Invictus, which tells the story of the Springboks and the meaning of their victory, wanted at all costs a former international rugby player of Samoan origin to play him, Isaac Feau'nati, in such a way as to pay homage to him in the best possible way, representing his power as faithfully as possible.
This is the beginning of the rise of rugby. But this fame is dangerous, because rugby union is still a weak sport, and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union knows it, so much so that it announces that it has put Lomu under contract and registered his name as a registered trademark, with all the rights of commercial exploitation of the name as a result, in order to prevent his transition to Rugby League or even American Football in NFL.
In 1997, Codemasters publishes a video game about the 1995 World Cup: its name is Jonah Lomu Rugby. That same year, a life-size statue of him is exhibited at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London.
In the meantime, however, Jonah's life is anything but roses and flowers.
The fundamental difference between Jonah Lomu and the legends of other sports lies in this: Jonah has NEVER been lucky. Not before, during or after.
In 1996, at the age of 21, following frequent illnesses, he is diagnosed with a serious kidney disease. It’s the beginning of his battle, which keeps him out of the field throughout 1997 and does not allow him to perform at his best in 1998.
Jonah, however, is now a star even outside the field, participates in extra-sports events (playing the role of juror at the Miss World final) and, driven by his infinite strength and the affection of fans around the world, resurrects. Called up by the All Blacks to the World Cup in 1999, he is eliminated in the semifinals against France, the hosting team. Jonah, however, once again writes history: 8 tries in 5 matches, an historical record.
It is the last true peak of his career. He continues to play, alternating moments of great sport with increasingly frequent moments of illness and treatments. The kidney disease degenerates, the transplant suffered in 2004 is only able to postpone the inevitable.
In the meantime, however, his legend has always been and continues to be stronger than anything else. In addition to his biography published in 2004 (My Story, Warren Adler), it is impossible to forget the Adidas commercial of 2007 where the good giant is represented in all its magnificence and desire to fight for a goal.
Jonah Lomu has had less time than other sports legends, much less time. He fought harder than anyone else and in the end he made it. He wrote history and did it in such a unique way that it is impossible to forget. Jonah Lomu changed rugby, took possession of it and became its image, probably forever. Fighting a terrible disease he gave us unforgettable moments, he gave the oval ball to the whole world and he became a symbol of hope for kids who come from unlucky situations.
And every rugbyman in the world can do nothing but kneel down and thank him.
KIA KAHA, JONAH. We miss you.