There is something slightly ridiculous about discussing the beauty of sport. Aesthetics seem beside the point. Sport exists to satisfy certain longings – for simplicity, coherence, drama and personal agency (or heroics). It is a good outlet for physical urges which are suppressed in the sedentary course of modern life (boys, in particular, seem to have a need to send things out from themselves in straight trajectories at high speed). But basically, sport is rightly considered a distraction from real life.
Sure, we can find beauty in the various symmetries of sport – the orchestration of one team against another; the rhythmic pacing of a game; the geometries of tennis courts and football pitches and their adamant white lines (no doubt a cultural studies academic somewhere has written a poetics of playing fields). But these are secondary sorts of beauty. They answer mainly to the depersonalised needs that sport is designed to satisfy: that it function as an arena in which the rules are clear and an outcome assured.
Still, there is no denying that there are a few rare sportsmen and women who bring to their chosen arena certain deeply artistic qualities, and who argue for the lovely, ancient notion that there is nothing in the understanding that was not first there in the muscles. They are not always the most effective at what they do – although the excitement one feels in watching them is certainly reinforced when they are. But they are by far the most pleasurable to watch.
"Pleasure," wrote WH Auden, "is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible." Auden was not talking about sport, but I have often kept his words in mind when traipsing pleasurelessly around art galleries on a Saturday morning. His practical advice has often given me the courage to dispense with any residual sense of art-critical duty and head instead for my living room in time for kick-off.
What is it I am hoping to find? Mostly childish satisfactions. I am like the students in the boarding house who prompted Auden, in his days as a schoolmaster, to write: "At the end of my corridor are boys who dream/Of a new bicycle or a winning team." Such longings no longer sound so poetic when you are in your thirties. But then I tell myself that I am a connoisseur, and that what I…