This quality is a grace very rare even among top-class sportsmen. It is possible to be a great player, and a hugely successful competitor, without it. Nor does anyone have it for life. Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most graceful sportsman of the century, lost it in the end. But he had it when beaten by Joe Frazier, and he had it when he beat Frazier in their return bout.
It is a quality that can be distinguished from all sorts of other sporting excellences. It is not just courage, though courage is part of it. Who could be braver than Mike Gatting, who was once struck so savagely on the face by a West Indian bouncer that when the bowler came to pick up the ball, he found a splinter of Gatting's nose bone on it? Yet who would switch on their television because they heard that Gatting was at the crease?
Any professional boxer is braver than his audience can well imagine, and the worse boxers may need courage more often than the best. It must be very hard to climb into the ring knowing that you will be beaten as well as badly hurt. None the less, the emotions that we feel watching a brave journeyman, even a successful one such as Barry McGuigan, are not on a level with those Ali inspired. The truly great athletes transcend the rules of their sport. When they must yield to the forces ranged against them - whether these are the cunning of opponents, the constraints of the rulebook, or the law of gravity - they make this seem an artistic decision to show off their greater mastery.
Nor is this grace the same as technical skill. It encompasses great skill, but skill can be found that never lifted the heart. Geoffrey Boycott was an exceptionally skilful batsman. Sometimes the skills involved are too arcane to communicate themselves to spectators who know nothing of the game. At other times a player may miss sublimity because his skills are not up to all the demands of the sport. With the ball at his feet, Glenn Hoddle was a genius who could silence 50,000 spectators with a kick, but never when it really mattered.
The consummate sportsman seems to invent new skills through complete mastery of the old. This is not achieved without a long apprenticeship and study of all that is known. But at their best such players make the unimaginable seem not merely easy, but easier than anything less perfectly skilful.
Perfection of this sort must work like art on the emotions of those who see it. But it is not the kind of art to which competitive sport most naturally tends, which is a sort of theatre where the interest is supplied by learning whether one side or another is going to win. That has its own pleasures. Every year at Wimbledon some British player loses in a match full of drama. The spectators have their hearts wrung with every double fault. They return to the corporate hospitality tents quite purged by pity and horror. But they have not savoured the delights of excellence.
On a more exalted level, the feats of Ian Botham are impressive because they win games that should be utterly lost, not because they seem to defy the laws of physics and deflect the arrow of time.
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the possession of huge sporting talent need imply no great respect for the laws and customs that bind lesser men. Among tennis players this is a pronounced trait because they are so soon isolated from the real world. Bjorn Borg, who could win Wimbledon five times, but never read anything more demanding than Donald Duck comics in Swedish, would fit in comfortably among the recipients of football scholarships at American universities.
The contrast between character and achievement is even greater in Borg's greatest rival. John McEnroe appeared off court to be no more than a spoilt lout. But hand him a racket and he could deal out enlightenment in every direction at once. This grace was combined with terrifying efficiency, so that even the most British spectators would pay tribute to his genius, with cries of where the - McEnroe - did that come from?Reuse content