Is beauty the essence of sport or a byproduct? It is both — and neither. Watching even the most lumbering, lugubrious players in the World Cup, it was revealing that at times even the worst of them (aesthetically speaking) was capable of moments of beauty. When Roger Federer plays down the line with time to spare, he brings together the elements that make up the idea of beauty: grace, simplicity, harmony, integrity, elegance, proportionality, rhythm.
The philosopher Kant spoke of the beautiful as having to be purposive, but without any definite purpose. The rainbow just is, the bird in flight might give pleasure but it doesn’t affect your life in any way. In sport, beauty without purpose makes little sense. If a footballer’s sole purpose is to look beautiful or if a bowler’s action described as poetry in motion fails to take wickets, they are counterproductive. Ask any coach. He would rather have an ugly footballer who scores goals or sets them up than an elegant, stylist dribbler who takes attention away from the purpose of the game.
“In play the beauty of the human body in motion reaches its zenith,” wrote the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. Watch Novak Djokovic stretch to retrieve a ball. The beauty is in the effort, not necessarily in the effect.
Often, unable to pin down what we mean by beauty — even philosophers struggle — we use words that suggest it (grace, integrity etc). Are there objective standards of what constitutes beauty? The physicality and energy of a Rafael Nadal might be the essence of beauty to some while the minimalism and unobtrusiveness of a Bjorn Borg might suggest it to others.
Even the boring batsman can play the perfect cover drive a couple of times in his career! That is the charm of sport. Every performer gets the rush that comes from perfection once in a while. The champion is able to summon that up more often. Is perfection beauty? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is the apparent lack of effort that produces it. Perhaps it is a combination of sporting skill and natural physical elegance. Among Indian batsmen, K. L. Rahul and to a lesser extent Ajinkya Rahane showcase this. For an earlier generation, there was V. V. S. Laxman, and even before that, the master, Gundappa Viswanath.
When you can play like that, you make the result seem irrelevant. Often there is a vulnerability that comes with beauty that convinces sportsmen that this is inevitable. It is not. But it means that beauty is sacrificed at the altar of efficiency. We tell ourselves that this is a function of our times, that the modern fan has no time for pointless beauty when the alternative is victory. Hockey, for example, has virtually outlawed all the elements that made it a beautiful game, from the bully-off to the sustained dribble.
Is sport meaningless or the most meaningful thing we do? It is both — and neither. Duality is the key to appreciating sport. And beauty.
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