a quoteblog by zach latta. rss.
Here is a theory. Top athletes are compelling because they embody the comparison-based achievement we Americans revere — fastest, strongest — and because they do so in a totally unambiguous way. Questions of the best plumber or best managerial accountant are impossible even to define, whereas the best relief pitcher, free-throw shooter, or female tennis player is, at any given time, a matter of public statistical record. Top athletes fascinate us by appealing to our twin compulsions with competitive superiority and hard data.
Plus they’re beautiful: Jordan hanging in midair like a Chagall bride, Sampras laying down a touch volley at an angle that defies Euclid. And they’re insiring. There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man. So actually more than one theory, then. Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that equisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves.
So we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it. How many hours a night did the child Bird spend in his driveway hitting jumpers under homestrung floodlights? What ungodly time did Bjorn get up for practice every morning? What exact makes of cards did the Butkus boys work out by pushing up and down Chicago streets? What did Palmer and Brett and Payton and Evert have to give up? And of course, too, we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best (“How did it feel to win the big one?”). What combination of blankness and concentration is rquired to sink a putt or free-throw for thousands of dollars in front of millions of unblinking eyes? What goes through their minds? Are these athletes real people? Are they even remotely like us? Is their Agony of Defeat anything like our little agonies of daily frustration? And of course what baout the Thrill of Vitory — what might it feel like to hold up that #1 finger and be able to actually mean it?
How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, Consider the Lobster (pg. 142)