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 am hoping to find is not just a winning team, but the apprehension of genius.
I once read a review claiming that Vel?zquez was as good at oil painting as anyone has been at anything. It seemed an attractive thought, in part because it is the kind of thing you usually hear about sportsmen. If you said it about Don Bradman, for instance, anyone who had even a glancing familiarity with cricket would know what you meant. In fact, it is sport, more often than art, that seems to throw up examples of this sort. It thrives on measurement and comparison, whereas art, even great art, clings stubbornly to ambiguity. There’s one thing that underpins most kinds of greatness which we appreciate most easily in sport: the appearance of effortlessness.
"Nothing," wrote the photographer Sally Mann, "is so seductive as a gift casually possessed." This seems to me to be a fundamental principle underlying the aesthetics of sport. It is one reason why the Australian batsman Mark Waugh was so much more exciting to watch than his brother Steve. He was never as reliable, he was mentally weaker and he had none of his twin’s famed "grit." But, like David Gower or Brian Lara, he had the gift of timing, and when he was at the crease he looked as if he could do whatever he pleased. It was a marvellous sight – made more so by the knowledge that he was in fact highly vulnerable.
Watching Thierry Henry and his Arsenal teammates is the same. You just shake your head and marvel. Reading what the sports columnists have to say about their exploits in the next day’s papers is a bit like reading "reviews" of Vel?zquez: it is an exercise in redundancy, and usually quite funny for being so. In fact, the relationship between humour and the pleasure one takes in athletes is fascinating. For some reason, when he is on the field, nothing about Henry seems funny. Humour, he reminds you, is there to console us for not being divine; it is beside the point when you’re getting your way as a god. Ruud van Nistelrooy, Henry’s rival at Manchester United, is different. As an opportunistic goal scorer, he is intensely physical, but everything he does feels flukey. He is tremendously effective, but something about him is also comical.
Perhaps, then, the aesthetic appeal of sport is more complex than clich?s about skill and timing initially suggest. Different athletes possess different kinds of aesthetic as well as athletic genius. Compare Bj?rn Borg and John McEnroe. Or Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. They are classic cases, not only because they provided great contests, but because they offered differing kinds of sporting beauty. Perhaps, I often think, when slumped in front of the telly, the real attraction of sporting prowess has to do with the pleasure – be it real or vicarious – of releasing the vast mass of mediocrity in oneself.