Far from home, the greatest-there’s-ever-been steps up to the blocks. He’s in an outside lane, a happenstance that would surprise the average viewer. And maybe it surprises the greatest-there’s-ever-been, but it’s hard to tell behind the blue, twinkling sheen that covers his eyes. Whatever the workings of his mind, his body and his face show determination. He looks leaner, almost younger than he ever has, a fact that surely strikes fear, resentment, or some other cacophony of emotions into his competition. As he steps and crouches, a silence falls over the crowd. All that can be heard is the greatest-there’s-ever-been, a terrifying and iconic two slaps, a ringing reminder that human or not, he is indeed made of the same physical stuff as others down the line. Then, even he stops moving. The official on the side calls to them, pauses, pulls the trigger, and it begins.
Seconds later, he comes up behind. No matter, this is nothing new. Perhaps that’s the cruelty in how the greatest-there’s-ever-been plays the game; he makes you feel you’ve won, makes you feel that he’s beatable after all, that the doubters and the whispers that he is in fact human are right, have always been right. But then you see him. You see how he flies, how he and the men around him inhabit different worlds, how physics work differently for the greatest-there’s-ever-been. You can check your clock, but the game has already been won. It’s only a matter of time.
Sports live in that rare and ambiguous space between nature and man.
Nearby, on unnatural floors, a different scene. It’s slightly odd; for 90 seconds, this overtly multicultural stadium adorned by countless flags and endless colors will ring of some musical blend, Brazilian and electric. It will roll and swell to fill the air and the minds of the thousands looking on, whisking them away from their immediacy, drowning their problems and needs in rapturous beats – a frantic, pumping energy. For a few minutes all that exists will be the music, the floor, and the girl that stands there alone. She’s painted by several twisting sheets of metallic blue, dotted with prisms of light that are reminiscent of something far away. The horn sounds, the music rumbles, and then the show begins.
The first thing you notice is her overwhelming strength. With every step the floor aches, beaten into submission. The metal that surrounds her twists and bends, the studs sending even light rocketing away. She too pays no heed to physics. In this stadium, the girl is lost in space. She forgets gravity’s demands upon her body, jumping, soaring to join the stars she wears. She dances and flows in all dimensions, living on three axes, a blue fireball of power and speed. The same question flits around the edges of the floor. Is she human?
After a minute and a half, the music fades, but the stadium is not met with silence. On the contrary, the space is filled with an avalanche of jubilation and applause. The girl smiles and walks – softer now – off the floor to join unequivocal humans who embrace her teary-eyed. In a moment, other humans will add up any minor flaws they imagined in the girl’s flying and issue a number, something that is supposed to stand for the art. The moment passes: 15.966, a mix of difficulty and execution. It’s largely inscrutable for most viewers, but it’s high. The girl flew the best. She won the air. Everyone knows it.
In a grand sense, swimming and gymnastics inhabit opposite ends of the sporting spectrum. One is instinctual, almost reflexive, short on rules and scores. It is easy to see who is the best in swimming – the one who hits the wall first. The other is an intensely calculated thing, manufactured, full of situations and values and math that raise the bar to understanding. At this level, barring absolute disaster, it’s difficult to tell one performance from another – everyone appears to be magical, pushing the bounds of human existence further and further, making the average viewer both in awe and jealous at one’s own inadequacy. Perhaps long ago, it was easy for a viewer to be an expert in all the events offered at the Olympics, back when humans were only doing natural things – by which I mean things necessary to survive: running, jumping, throwing – and the winner was defined solely by who had the biggest or smallest number. That’s no longer the case. The Olympics is a sprawling mess of sports and events, requiring hundreds of pundits and many more hundreds of pages of rules.
However, the fact of it is that it does not matter. Every eye on the Olympics believes itself an expert. Sports have a funny way of making all opinions feel valid, until they dribble into the world and are often found to be wanting. It’s probably something about the fact that it is other people up there on the screen, or out there on the field. It calls to our sense of competitiveness, the ultimate “if they can do it, so can I,” the feeling that if those four can win gold, three of them and you could at least take the silver, maybe bronze on a bad day.
Maybe it’s easy to relate because we made the games. Humans wrote those rules to soccer, to gymnastics, to any and every sport we play. And that fact is entrancing. Someone out there took the limits we set and defeated them, redefined them, changed the game. But there’s a further side to that. So many of the sports are defined by natural things. There is a permeating notion that people swimming fast are conquering nature, that athletes everywhere are defeating biology and physics and a host of other sciences. The notion exists as Simone Biles conquers gravity, as Phelps defeats the seas, as Eaton bests everything a man can do. Sports live in that rare and ambiguous space between nature and man.
Swimming is defined by power. You must be strong to get through the water, that ever-antagonizing force. And yet, Phelps appears to swim effortlessly. There is no struggle – the water seems to flee before him. While he might play the same game in name, it’s drippingly obvious that he sees another way, a better way. Biles lives in the same realm. Her sport is made of turns and flips and steps, little moments punctuated by smiles and displays of the feminine form. “Artistic gymnastics,” it’s called. Biles does not seem to care. She is the best because of her strength, because of how she is able to muscle herself higher than anyone has ever gone, because of how long she can float.
Maybe he forgot that he was probably human all along, and that athletes, no matter how great, are cursed with the most tangible expression of time.
Our love for sports is, of course, an ancient and almost primal thing. It is the evolution of the entertainment of yore, when sport meant combat and winning meant survival. But in the modern era, when so many of our beloved games do not involve combat or even contact between people, our love for sport has grown and mutated into something more complex and, paradoxically, simpler. Why do we tune in to such benign and fascinating sports as table tennis, diving, or the pole vault? We do so because the sports represent the best of us. It’s obvious to say that the athletes at the Olympics are the best at what they do. But they’re the best at something beyond just their sports. By excelling at their sports, these athletes transcend not only the boundaries we artificially placed on them, but also the boundaries of bodies. Maybe we can’t do that ourselves (as we all should begrudgingly admit). But someone, somewhere can, so humans can, and therefore, we can. At its core, that is why we live for sports.
Age is a notoriously discreet, creeping thing. It’s hard for us to see the day-to-day decay of our skills on any sort of immediate, tangible scale. But it’s always there, the silent, underappreciated fixture of our lives. There’s a sort of release to be found in sport. As time wears us thin, the athletes seem never to falter. They remain strong, nimble, ethereal. The pride of watching these perfect people as our own bodies age and decay keeps us tuning in.
These humans that conquer our games, that transcend our rules and those of nature, undoubtedly become our heroes. Even as the Olympics, and therefore public awareness of the actual sports therein, come around every four years, the athletes remain in our collective thoughts. Very few watch a gymnastics competition in odd numbered years. Yet the girls become celebrities. These heroes are commercialized, their faces plastered on billboards and tv ads. They’re put up as inspiration for children and adults across a wide range of classes, backgrounds, and interests. There’s a unifying pressure coming from these humans, and we succumb to it repeatedly, no matter where we are. And that’s another thing about sports. The Olympics stand as a point of nationalistic pride. There’s the legend of the medal count, the parade of nations, the anthems, the walking embodiment of a country’s fervor and spirit. It’s equalizing, almost neutralizing. If your country is here, they made it. No matter the climes that plague your people back at home, for just a moment you get to be free.
Back in Rio, swimming a few meters over from the greatest-there’s-ever-been is a boy. He has a rounder face than most of his older competition, almost pudgy. With every stroke, he seems to emanate aggression, a youthful vivacity, thrusting his shoulders and head down into the water with fervent resolve. He does not have the grace of the greatest-there’s-ever-been, does not have his same mystical control of physics and form. He does not seem to be of the water, try as he might by cladding himself in a deep blue suit.
None of that bothers the boy. As the competitors hit the first wall, he leads. The stadium, the world, remains sure of the outcome. With 20 meters to go, he leads. The whispers begin. With 5 meters to go, he leads. It’s a short, endless moment, and it’s over. The boy has won. The greatest-there’s-ever-been has not. Maybe he forgot that he was probably human all along, and that athletes, no matter how great, are cursed with the most tangible expression of time.
There’s something poetic in the loss. The greatest-there’s-ever-been has tied for second with two of his historic rivals, other humans who were always at odds with this man made of water. As they step on the podium, the veterans are all smiles. The boy is jubilant, almost nervous, to be standing by, above his hero.
In one of those moments that seem pre-written, there’s an old picture that has surfaced, showing the boy as an actual boy, years ago, without the muscles and the gold that define him now. He stands next to the greatest-there’s-ever-been, awkward and childish, but obviously thrilled to be breathing the same air as that marine thing. Neither of them knows what the future holds.
But now we do, and time always did. Time knew that in the end, one man’s command of the world could not last forever. It knew that the small tears in the fabric would add up and our human heroes would unravel at the seams. It knew that the way of all things is towards slowness, stumbles, stops. But humans knew something too. Humans knew there will always be someone else who can step up and conquer the body. Humans know that we make the rules, and we transcend them. Humans know that we can win. And that’s the beauty of sport.
Headline photo: “Michael Phelps conquista 20ª medalha de ouro e é ovacionado” by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil under a Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0 Brazil (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/br/legalcode) at http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/rio-2016/foto/2016-08/michael-phelps-conquista-20a-medalha-de-ouro-e-e-ovacionado