Sunday, May 03, 2009

Great sports writing

I take sport ever so seriously. I maintain that its ultimate justification is similar to art. It's about human excellence and creativity. Sure, most people don't see it like that. Sport is also about US versus THEM, about group identity and loyalty.

Sports writing is usually unsatisfying, but this blog about soccer is great. This is just a fantastic (but very long) post. You should read it, but I'm blogging it because of this bit
A great player in the NFL—even someone like Barry Sanders, who regularly did things I've never seen another human being even try—is essentially great because he performs his specific function better than anyone else and gives his team a better chance to win. A great soccer player—Zidane, say—is great because, in addition to that accomplishment, he lifts a new understanding out of the flow of play and says "football can be like this."
I've toyed with a post along these lines for ages. Much of sport, or most art of human activity falls into the category of stuff that may be difficult, but we kinda know how to do. With sport, generally you can become really good by training more, getting fitter, stronger, faster more accurate. This is difficult of course, but knowable from a comfy armchair.

But that's not what's really important. What matters is when someone does something, sees something that you never would have guessed or seen yourself. It matters that it works, that it helps to achieve the goal of the game. But there is kind of a moral element to this, the creativity must be directed towards winning, but winning cannot be the only objective. There's so much room for winning stuff that falls outside of the actual sport itself. You can be thuggish, constantly push the boundaries of the rules, intimidate the referees etc. In an imperfect world there's no way to guarantee that the cynical players or teams don't succeed.

Even within the spirit of the game, there's reason to support the smaller, slower team or player, because if they are to win they will need to do more to explore that non-obvious territory that can't be discovered by relentless training. It's a difficult balancing act, winning is not dispensable, but can't be the only thing.

Maybe you've seen one of the places I've been going with this. These are the reasons why it's Federer and not Nadal who makes tennis worthwhile, something more than my guy beating your guy. Other than deliberately annoying opponents with delays, Nadal is probably the more admirable player, but his superiority over Federer is mostly "outside" tennis itself. He's faster, more disciplined, physically and mentally stronger and he seems more determined. Most of the things he's actually has control over. Federer, despite his frailties, has the ability to transcend the brute mechanics of the game. At his best, it doesn't matter if his opponent has done everything right his entire life. There is a gap between perfectly drilled serve, forehand and backhand, between textbook tennis and what can be done by a creative genius. Nadal is much more than ruthless efficiency, but he's not Federer.

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