We must not throw too much light on beautiful shadows, lest they disappear altogether

“Ever wondered how Shane Warne bowled the ‘Ball of the Century’”?

An article in The Guardian newspaper late last week, written by Nick Evershed, began with that question, and went on to say how two Australian researchers/physicists have “revealed the inner workings of spin bowling.”

First, a caveat: I have never been a fan of revelations — especially in areas of human activity that contribute little or nothing to our real understanding of life in all its complexities.

To put it simply, applying science to Warne’s bowling is like saying Roger Federer’s genius can be explained by simply keeping track of his footwork and then feeding the data into a computer.

Of course, if a literary critic were to say that Fyodor Dostoevsky’s fiction is so much ink on paper or an art historian were to dismiss Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile as so much oil on canvas — and that these legends of literature and art created their masterpieces with such and such formula — the scale of atrocity and philistinism would be much more horrific.

The point is whether you want to enjoy a glorious sunset in a lonely paradise — if one such place still exists on our ravaged earth — or to try and digest it scientifically, reducing it to its physical specifics.

Surely, science is mankind’s greatest accomplishment, and it almost always moves forward through unavoidable reductionism. But should we allow our awe-inspiring moments in sport to be dissected by science for us to better appreciate them?

If we did that, how will it change our lived, first person experience of the event we have witnessed — whether it is Warne’s Ball of the Century or Muhammad Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle or Diego Maradona tiptoeing through the tulips in the 1986 World Cup match against England?

Do you care about ‘the how’ of Nadia Comaneci’s Perfect 10 at Montreal in 1976, or Lionel Messi’s perfect waltz or Garry Sobers’s once-in-a-century innings of 254 for the World XI against a fiery Dennis Lillee at his best in 1971 — an innings described by Don Bradman as “the best played on Australian soil”?

Neither the biomechanics of a great sporting act nor the biology of its author, in this age of genomics can help enhance the innocent pleasure of the partaking of its beauty. On the other hand, it can quite often diminish it.

We are a curious species; this is precisely the reason why we are who we are, with all the fortuitous and disastrous consequences. But we must learn not to throw too much light on beautiful shadows, lest they disappear altogether.

Great disservice

The problem is, pop science does a great disservice to real game-changing serious science when it arrives unsolicited to sort out such utterly inconsequential matters concerning sport.

Physicists, biologists and anthropologists might seek to reflect on sport from time to time in a larger context — possibly from an evolutionary perspective — but the ones who have their eyes on the big prize are unlikely to waste their time and resources trying to explain how great sportspersons get to perform seemingly perfect athletic feats.

Then again, few truly gifted sportspersons can explain, in purely scientific terms, how they managed to achieve the extraordinary feats they have been credited with. And we don’t need to do that either; for doing so is unlikely to render a subjective experience any more meaningful.

Would it have added anything substantial to the five star master-class on grass put on by Novak Djokovic and the valiant Argentine giant Juan Martin del Potro if we managed to find out what was going on in the Serbian champion’s brain — which neuronal pathways were lighting up as he closed out the epic semifinal five-setter at Wimbledon the other day?

Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, a neuroscientist may be able to persuade a champion performer to wear a lightweight Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) helmet to monitor brain activity.

While the results may prove useful to the researcher, it would hardly make a difference to the tens of millions watching their super-hero walk the tightrope with a blindfold on.

Virtuoso feats of endurance and skills in the field of sport are not cherished because they are super-natural, even if some of us hold them dear precisely because we harbour that illusion. The truth is, sport is ultimately a simple business that is best enjoyed without delving too deep either into its ultimate meaning — which, essentially, is its absence — or the profound science behind it. And we must enjoy the ride without being paralysed by analysis. For, the cold logic of science cannot perfectly capsulise the essence of something that may actually be common to millions but is still uniquely personal to each one of us in the stands or on the drawing room couch while watching sport.


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