The first Ancient Olympics took place in Greece in 776 BC. The main events were athletics, wrestling and marathon, among others. All these being events that required strength, endurance and stamina. Fast forward the scene to Greece again in 1896, and the events weren’t altogether dis-similar. Sports has always been associated with passion, grit, talent, temperament, toughness and even intelligence. But not much with grace, elegance and beauty. The Olympic motto is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. Why not “Prettier?” Should beauty be restricted to Artistic Gymnastics and Synchronised Diving?
Bar a few exceptions, grace has never been a stand-out feature of any legendary sporting entity- whether it be an individual, or a team. Of course, beauty certainly lies in the eyes of the beholder and what may be beauty to one may not be beauty to another. But, generally, very few of these entities delight people to the extent of sheer joy or pure bliss. What’s more, they don’t want to delight anybody as well. The aim of every single sporting entity is and should be to provide delight in the form of victories. Visual delight is certainly given the back seat. Beauty has always been the icing. Never the cake.
Today, the pundits keep predicting the doom of sports as they used to see it. Behind the baseline groundstrokes have replaced the finesse of a serve-and-volley game. The 5-4-1 formations have replaced the vibrant 3-3-4s. The gentleman’s game is all about slogging and ridiculously short boundaries. The delicate touch-and-go style has been replaced by the more effective diagonal long balls in hockey. Rather than going for the kill, the players of today prefer dire, defensive ordeals in chess. The machine keeps overshadowing the man every single year in F1. It is all about power, power, power, lament the pundits. The thirst for victory has sounded the death-knell of elegance they say. But beaneath all these stereotypes, aren’t they missing reality? Isn’t it obvious that things are not even half as bad as they seem? Because, this is something I say with full conviction. Beauty is dominating sports like never before.
There maybe no Ken Rosewall or Arthur Ashe wielding the magic racquet today. The delightful drop shots and cheeky lobs may not be as popular as they used to be. The Gilbert and Bolletieri prodigies believe in rapid runs across the baseline rather than rapid runs towards the net. Yes, the sport has changed. But then isn’t change inevitable? And just because the pundits say the new game is unattractive, does it really mean so? Well, all this talk is about mere mortals. Beyond all this “the good old days” monotony, we found two of the greatest players the game has seen. And in them, we find the very embodiment of beauty, grace and elegance. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, statistically and aesthetically, the two greatest players of all time, have serve and volleyed, drop shotted, “one-handed backhanded”, lobbed and delighted their ways to immortality. The Swiss wizard is still going strong, though his zenith maybe past him. No, beauty is not dead in tennis. It has been ruling the game for the past two decades.
The beautiful game may never see another Di Stefano, Puskas, Pele or Beckenbauer. Cryuff’s Total Football is all but dead. Even Dunga’s Brazil embraced the more effective, yet cliched “boring defensive football”, ditching its vey own Joga Bonito style in South Africa. The Italians have revolutionised the game with their Catenaccio style of defensive football. The rewards that this style reaps was perfectly illustrated by Chelsea in its famous Champions League semifinal defeat of Barcelona. Also, the fans are perfectly happy, much to the despair of the so-called “connoisseurs”. Amidst all this was born a game-changing sorcery led by an Argentine Wunderkind that has changed the very landscape of football. FC Barcelona and the Spanish National Team, both having supremely gifted artists like Xavi and Iniesta in their ranks, have feinted, touched, back-heeled and through-balled their ways to immortality. No, beauty is not dead in football. It is the leader of a new language in the game.
Hockey is perhaps the game that has undergone the largest metamorphosis among all sports. The birth of another Dhyanchand is next to impossible. The pre-1950s Indian hockey team is irreplaceable. The synthetic turf and the advent of European dominance resulted in the elegant sub-continental game becoming archaic. The National Game lies in a sorrowful state. Now, let’s look at 3 players from the three most successful nations in the game today. In Jamie Dwyer, team Australia has undoubtedly the best player in the world today. When in full flow, Dwyer is poetry in motion. A wonderful sight. The German outfield player, Christopher Zeller is more like the Zidane of hockey. His feints and stickwork are unparalleled right now.
And if Dhyanchand is the Bradman of hockey, then the Sachin Tendulkar of the game is the Dutchman, Teun de Nooijer. Having played over 400 matches for the Oranje, Nooijer’s trophy cabinet has everything that a hockey player could possibly ask for. And the game has seen few more elegant players than the legendary Dutchman. The three aforementioned players have been the most vital cogs in the wheel of the inter-changing juggernauts that Australia, Germany and The Netherlands have been. They have drag-flicked, smashed and scooped their ways to immortality. No, beauty is not dead in hockey. It has given new impetus to a waning game.
If Neville Cardus, the much acclaimed cricket writer had been alive today, he would have been the saddest man on earth, lamenting how “Un-British” the game has become. No sport has delighted the purists more than cricket. Right from Hobbes, Hutton and Bradman to Boycott, Kanhai and Gavaskar, cricket was the one game totally unaffected by all the “evils of modern capitalism”. Then came the year 1975, and subsequently the Packer Era. This would have been enough to break the heart of Cardus. The game had become “artificial”. Then came 2007, and subsequently, Lalit Modi. This must have broken the heart of every cricket lover with grey hair. The game had become a “business”. Test cricket was doomed, they said. 5 years on, inspite of the phoenix-like revival of Test cricket, inspite of ODIs being unaffected, the experts are still afraid. The gap between bat and ball was becoming more pronounced by the day. Twenty20 had shot Test cricket in the head, they believed. But then, post 2008, hasn’t Tendulkar continued to delight us? Didn’t Murali continue to mesmerise us, until he decided to call it a day? Didn’t every Very Very Sublime flick by Laxman drive Sidhu crazy? Hasn’t Jayawardene kept on playing the late cut with childish cheek? And isn’t Hashim Amla the greatest advertisement for beauty in the game today? Isn’t a Steyn yorker cartwheeling the middle stump a beautiful sight? Together, they have pulled, cover drived, doosra-ed and reverse swung their ways to immortality. No, beauty is not dead in cricket. It is guiding the game through a transitional phase.
The writer cannot draw on further analogies from other disciplines of sport, simply due to his ignorance of their present state. All he knows is that Viswanathan Anand continues to dominate chess, and he is as attacking a player as there ever was. And in chess, attack is beauty. Though they haven’t defied gravity as yet, unlike their legendary predecessor, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are, among many, many others, two players who definitely make basketball beautiful. Take away Jansher and Jahangir Khan, squash has never seen players as elegant as Amr Shabana and James Willstrop. And I hope, wish and fervently believe that elegance has a major role to play in every game, right from Dressage Equestrian to Sepak Takraw. Sports needs the artists more. Not at the expense of victory, but as the very cornerstone of victory. If there is anything that can carry sports forward during the testing times of drug scandals, match fixing and spot fixing, it is excellence. And excellence is beauty in itself. What sports need is more Michael Johnsons and less Ben Johnsons. No, beauty is not dead in sports. Grace is definitely, great.