GUEST COLUMN: Ali was an inspiration, by Mark Cottingham, Shirebrook Academy principal

Mark Cottingham, principal of Shirebrook Academy
Mark Cottingham, principal of Shirebrook Academy

It might have appeared almost too perfect for me to quote Muhammed Ali when I was preparing my recent speech to our year 11 leavers earlier this month, just a few days after his death.

But, in fact, I have used Ali’s words and life many times during my teaching career as sources of inspiration.

Until recently I had a poster of him on my office wall and it was a great conversation starter.

I was eight years old when I first became aware of Ali. He was defending his world title against Yorkshireman Richard Dunne and my dad let me stay up well past my bed time to watch it. As a Yorkie, I should have been rooting for Dunne but, even though Ali was past his prime by then, I was fascinated by his grace, skills and charisma.

Since then I’ve read so many books and articles and watched so many films on the great man that he could be my specialist subject on Mastermind. He became a hero to me, not just for his supreme skills as a sportsman, but for his wit, his courage and his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, even at the expense of his reputation and liberty.

It was sad to see him reduced to a shadow of his former self by Parkinson’s, yet, even then, he showed great dignity and courage, epitomised when he summoned all his remaining strength to light the Olympic Flame at Atlanta in 1996.

I knew Ali was ill and so was expecting the news of his death and, when it came, it felt like a release for him, given his illness. I was staying with a friend and we immediately started talking about his life, rather than dwelling on his death.

That seemed fitting, as it was to use one of his best-known quotes to encourage my departing year 11s to look to the future as well as to reflect on their school years - to continue learning beyond school, to always be open to new ideas and experiences and to learn from everything in life, successes and failures alike.

All this Ali summed up beautifully when he said “the man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” I hope our students heed Ali’s advice and do not waste a moment of the exciting years ahead.