The impossible search for perfection

WHEN Nadia Comaneci finished her performance on the uneven bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, something incredibly bizarre occurred.


Michael Phelps kisses his gold medal on the podium after winning the men's 400m individual medley final in the 10th FINA World championships. Phelps provided unmatched performances by setting two World records on the same day and broke five individual World records in a single meet.-Pic. AFP

WHEN Nadia Comaneci finished her performance on the uneven bars at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, something incredibly bizarre occurred.

The scoreboard read 1.0. An error? Yes, and no.

The scoreboard, not without some irony, had not been programmed to record a 10, after all, it had never happened before, it could not be conceived. Perhaps the computer, this soulless box of wires and circuitry, briskly churning out numbers, somehow understood that a 10 did not make sense, it was a sporting impossibility.

It was as if a machine of all things had figured out that perfection in sport cannot exist.

Understandably, the judges may have been so bewitched by the Romanian's athletic and lissome grace that they were unable to note a flaw, or point out even the most minimal of errors. That is fine.

But what the score also suggested is that in a sense no one, ever, could be better than Comaneci. That they could be as good, but only that.

It was like putting a finishing line on human performance, which itself is an absurdity (even in sports where winning is a matter of judgement like gymnastics).

This impossibility of perfection, this unending search for excellence, this reality that there is no ultimate athlete, was brought home in a photograph of two swimmers.

In the photograph Ian Thorpe is smiling, and he is holding the hand of a man who wears a semi-bewildered expression. It appears nothing new, another image of Thorpe consoling a young pretender who has suddenly had to confront the improbability that his future will be purely silver.

Except, the bewildered fellow is Michael Phelps, the winner, and Thorpe is the loser.

Admittedly, this was the 200m individual medley in which Phelps is numero uno and Thorpe a debutant of sorts. But that is a peripheral matter, the larger issue is far more compelling.

For two years and more, in Australia and beyond, Thorpe has been considered, by some pundits and public, as the greatest swimmer of all time (though one must add he has laughed at this assumption himself). We have made references to his flipper feet, his curved arm resembling a shark-like fin, his skin suit having been borrowed from a seal, his similarity to a torpedo, all to prove the point that he is a freak, a swimming oddity, whose parting of the waters makes Moses' performance seem woefully inadequate.

It has been argued that we have never quite seen anything like this in water, whereupon we are confronted by Michael Phelps and lost for words.

In short, if Thorpe was our idea of swimming perfection then what is the word for Phelps?

Already Phelps has provided performances unmatched by any man, and this includes Thorpe. He has broken two World records in different events on the same day. He has broken five individual world records in a single meet.

So is he perfection? Of course not.

Perfection is impossible because, in a way, it implies a limit to human achievement. And though at times it appears man surely cannot run faster, throw further, leap higher, some combination of circumstance (Bob Beamon at high altitude) and biology (Miguel Indurain's freakish lung capacity, Marion Jones' fast-twitch fibre), technology (studying stride patterns on a computer) and simple passion (Lance Armstrong once practising for seven hours, alone, in the sleet), allows human beings to push the envelope that little bit more.

Even in sports without adequate measuring tools, perfection is harder than it seems. In a telling rebuke, Tiger Woods last month said "the press had a tendency to get too flowery, and thus amplified both his successes and his failures". In short, he was not that good or (when in a so-called slump) that bad. To emphasise the point, he once suggested that in an entire year he might hit one shot that flirted with perfection, one shot that was an almost-faultless amalgam of swing and strength, position and power, science and art. One immaculate shot a year of a million?

We have to be careful of this perfection, wary of exaggeration, reluctant in a way to award Torvill and Dean their perfect sixes in figure skating in 1984, because everyday we see a new measure of progress.

Because this progress is so often incremental, these gains so minor, we are not as stirred as we should be. When swimmers break records by less than a second we are impressed, yes, but sometimes unable to grasp how far man has come. It does not seem, on the face of it, a great advance. But consider this: if Phelps swam against Richard Roth, the 400 IM winner at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, then he would be a length if not more ahead of him. It is staggering.

No feat is flawless, it is why it cannot last. Jack Nicklaus seemed untouchable and along has come Woods to refute that. Juan Fangio's five Formula One World championships looked set in stone till Michael Schumacher put his foot down. When Kobe Bryant scored 35 and more points in 13 straight games last season, it was a feat even Michel Jordan hadn't accomplished.

Miguel Indurain's five Tour de France's in a row appeared unbeatable, till a cancer survivor, once given less than a 10 per cent chance to live, his head scarred by surgery to remove tumours from his brain, has equalled it, and in a way surpassed it. Be sure, one day he will be a footnote in history, too.

Of all major sporting accomplishments, Bradman's batting average is one that may never be replicated but that is also because his circumstances were unique. But even with him, his last innings duck seemed divinely ordained. For to finish with an average of 100 would suggest a mastery, a batting perfection so to speak, that is altogether impossible.

Sporting brilliance lies not so much in perfection itself, but in the champion's commitment to find it. In the athlete's conviction that it exists even for the flickering instant of a breathtaking dive, in the power of an athlete's unblinking belief that one day he will run a race unspoiled by error. It will not happen, but it is in this very quest that the athlete finds excellence. It is this journey to an impossible dream that drives champions, and in turn captivates us.

The perfect 10 does not exist. But in his pursuit of it, Phelps reminded us powerfully that there is no limit to human endeavour.