No Boundaries Other Sports

Is winning everything or is aesthetic perfection the only thing?

A Lionel Messi, at his imperious best — a player who is debatably the best of all time — leaving four hefty defenders behind, attempting a ludicrously impossible catch-up and scratching their hair and shaking their heads in sheer disbelief, performing his tiptoe-through-the-tulips routine towards the goal and finally beating the goalkeeper in the last micro-second to coax the ball into the goal.

A Roger Federer, seemingly down in the trenches, hitting — or, should we say composing — an impossible forehand cross-court winner which goes around the net post to fall plumb in the middle of the junction between the sideline and the baseline, running as if on legs borrowed from Usain Bolt and a never-say-die spirit borrowed from Bjorn Borg against a top class opponent.

An ageing Garry Sobers taking on one of the finest fast bowlers that ever played the game at his peak — Dennis Lillee — in a World XI vs Australia match and taking the tearaway quickie apart, prompting the greatest player of all time — Don Bradman — to declare it was ‘the greatest innings ever played on Australian soil’.

Apocryphal as these vignettes may be, these are tiny masterpieces witnessed by sports lovers tens of dozens of times. You simply have to Google your way through a search and and you will find out that these incidents have been enacted by the greats many, many times.

You might like to imagine that these supreme artists are born great — even if we do not want the Creationists to gain additional mileage — but they have had to practise almost like lesser mortals in their sport.

On the other side are men who toil and toil and toil and yet just rewards elude them. The planet does not thrive on equality and we must judge both in a strictly professional manner.

But that is the way the pale blue dot — as the great cosmologist Carl Sagan chose to describe planet earth — is almost as unequal as it can be.

And thanks to the fact that we almost revel in the Big Gap between the rich and the poor, things are unlikely to change any time soon.

While we can leave that matter to compassionate economists and policy planners, it is obvious when we watch sport, that it can come up with more than one Bill Gates or a dozen and hundreds of millions of the deprived men and women.

Yet, most of us worship the minority — something that is an evolutionary process that mixes genes with a generous amount of memes (the cultural equivalents of genes) — and we do it no matter that they fail or succeed.

But why? It is perhaps because most of us are aesthetes; or because that a Messi or a Federer or a Sobers belong to a very special category — the once in a lifetime players.

Best said it best (no pun intended) in his book, Philosophy and Human Movement (1978). Perhaps sport is one category where the aesthetic is where winning is a means to an end.

You can be a Messi; but if you don’t deliver consistently, you might find yourself warming the bench. The players are merely tools in the hands of autocratic managers who have just one point of view — remember David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United a few seasons ago?

We seldom celebrate glorious failures and we believe our heroes to be supermen who can do no wrong — men and women who are from Mars or wherever they produce super-human athletes.

This is a very simplistic approach where a nuanced understanding of a complex question is considered rarer than sightings of elephants in the Siberian winter and tigers in Iceland — perhaps to improve the morale of the brave scientists who toil there to study one of the least inhabited places on earth.

This, of course, leads us to an obvious question: can greatness in sport be quantified? Is Jacques Kallis greater than Sobers because the South African great scored more runs and captured more wickets? Did Larry Holmes’s victory over the ageing, physically unfit champion towards the end win him the title of ‘The Greatest’, a title that will always belong to the recently departed Muhammad Ali?

Difficult questions

Then again, when we face the difficult questions — Aesthetics versus Success and Beauty versus Victory — we take extreme positions that can lead you nowhere. And no man’s land is everyman’s land.

Is playing in a particular way makes for beauty? And some of sport’s great artists seldom care much for the scoreline. For, they know that they have enjoyed themselves out in the middle; and to hell with their huge number of critics.

The number of times that Borg has battled back from behind, even from two sets to love, to win matches at Wimbledon may be something of a record.

A sublime left-handed drop shot on break point,which is something that John McEnroe plays — or played at his peak — and is worthy of celebration by tens of millions watching appears distressing with a small bunch of his opponent’s supporters? Scientists, after a painstaking experiment, may conclude that the US versus THEM equation is so deeply embedded in our DNA that sports-watching and playing will have nay sayers as well as ones who welcome it.

It is in professional sport that we see the best and the worst of human behaviour.

In the event, the beauty — advisedly used with a caveat: the result is irrelevant —as well as allurement and aesthetics versus victory and triumphalism debate may be unlikely to be resolved in our time.

This is why David Best bisected sport into two categories — purposive sports and aesthetic sports. And he left the ball clearly in the court of purposive athletic action.

But the point is, to get our perspectives right we need to get rid of our Pleistocene era excess baggage.

For, beauty clears all barriers. And it is extreme reductionism to say that winning matters much more than anything else — a Federer crosscourt forehand that makes you wonder if the man is part of our species or a Messi dream run that results in a goal and turns us all into believers in magic. Even a hobbled Federer or a slightly injured Messi can never descend to the level of the mediocre.

Of course, some sports can satisfy both our yearnings: for impossible perfection and all too human and fallible actors.


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Printable version | May 13, 2021 11:13:56 PM |

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