Where do sports icons stand in the hierarchy of genius?

Genius is one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. It might perhaps take a man of Shakespearean genius to figure out what it actually means.

For we hear of geniuses and geniuses and geniuses in every field of activity all the time that it makes us wonder if half the world’s population of seven billion deserves that such exalted status. But when it comes to abuse of the word through wilful exaggeration, no area of human activity can compare to professional sport.

Of course, such public naivete predictably has the support of the media and the manipulative ‘genius’ of PR professionals. This is why we common folk cannot be blamed if the contributions of Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein to mankind, and other forms of life too, are less celebrated than that of Sachin Tendulkar, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kolhi.

The dilution of the word genius is so common and universal in sports that some of us who think that the word must be used with great care, and as rarely as possible after serious deliberation, might be dismissed as curmudgeonly cynics. These thoughts occupied my mind the other day when I was sitting in a coffee shop and heard my 79-year-old friend argue with his teenaged grandson about whether Garry Sobers and Viv Richards were more talented than Virat Kolhi.

While keeping my mouth shut, it struck me that the younger man knew very little about the game’s history and his grandfather was all too willing to discount millennial talent as over-rated boosterism. The point about genius is, it has no clear yardstick. After a 48-ball century by Chris Gayle and Kohli’s magnificent unbeaten half century against Australia in the world Twenty20 championship you might struggle to resist the temptation to rank the pair alongside Don Bradman and Sobers. But what we need is sobriety and sense of perspective to arrive at a fairly accurate evaluation.

At the best of times, sport wonderfully enriches life; at its worst, it blinds us almost completely to reality. Quite a lot of people believe that perception changes with point of view and you might have to make minor adjustments to correct your own biases to come anywhere near a common sense view — which in many cases may turn out to be common nonsense. “Genius ain’t anything more than elegant common sense,” said Josh Billings, the 19th century American humourist and writer. Then again, E=MC2 was not the product of ordinary common sense but the discovery of a man who is among a handful of life-altering and mindboggling geniuses in the ultimate analysis.

But when they disgracefully removed Albert Einstein’s brain on his death for laboratory investigation in the hope of finding something extraordinary in the great man’s grey matter, they were predictably disappointed. For Einstein’s brain weighed only 1230 grams, less than that of the common man’s!

Then again, Einstein himself might not have been surprised. “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius knows its limits” said 20th century’s most celebrated scientist. What Einstein had was, to quote Ezra Pound on genius, “the capacity to see 10 things where the ordinary man sees one”. But surely you cannot apply this logic to blithely compare Pound’s words with the capacity of a batsman to play 10 shots with that of a man who can play just three or four.

If this is a common occurrence, then the sports media is partly to blame too. “The capacity of sporting journalists to wax lyrical in the face of the exceptional is only matched by the speed with which they run out of adjectives in doing so,” wrote Derek Malcolm, the English film critic and historian.

In sport, there are geniuses who deserve the tag right through their long careers. Typical examples are Bradman, Sobers, Lionel Messi, Sachin Tendulkar and Muhammad Ali, to name only five.

Then there are some who can be termed genius for a short phase in their careers (George Best, Jake LaMotta, known as the raging bull, and quite a number of cricketers too — men such as Vinod Kambli). Finally there are the ones who time and again flirt with genius without ever embracing it. These are the ones who seem to have a larger than life status thanks to the hyprebole. For they clearly do not deserve that status.

Not the same

In the event, all geniuses are not the same. Some are more equal than the others. “Exceptional creative or intellectual powers with great artistic abilities.” This is one of a handful of dictionary definitions of genius. But in the field of sport, historically, the term genius has come to be rather more accommodating, accepting in its hall of fame more than just the creative, original and inventive types.

The peerless Muhammad Ali used the ropes as skillfully as a balletic genius uses his arms and legs to outwit the younger and stronger George Foreman in Zaire (now known as the Republic of Congo) in 1974. Sport can rarely aspire to match high art except on the rare occasion when an Ali or a Roger Federer put on display their magic.

We call Shakespeare a genius; so do we in the case of Fyodor Dostoevsky or Wolfang Amadeus Mozart; can we include Ali or Federer or Sachin or Messi in the same exalted group? That would be a fallacy — both aesthetic and cognitive. For, the broader definition notwithstanding, the consistently successful employment of exceptional talent on the field of play cannot be equated to genius in the high arts.

For a sportsman to be called a genius, inspired and incandescent stuff will have to pour forth from the athlete time and again. But in a purely sporting context, genius is a Federer forehand crosscourt winner, literally with his back to the wall, from way outside the court; it is a Tendulkar playing an exquisite and jaw-droppingly beautiful cover drive against a Glenn McGrath delivery that the great Australian fast bowler might have believed was a perfectly good ball.

Genius is the incomparable Ali dancing in the ring, and then coming up with the legendary rope trick; It is Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico when the enigmatic genius did a fair imitation of a Rudolf Nureyev at his best, leaving five or six defenders in his trail before scoring.

But then, at the end of the day, as an everyman, there is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty on the subject. I will never, ever know what that exalted quality of genius feels like to the great performers themselves. On the other hand, I can tell you quite a lot about what being stupid feels like!

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 3:17:58 pm |