I'm not much of a one for top-five-of-whatever lists. I'm far too scattered of brain, too non-alphabetising of CD collection, too not-giving-a-fuck-who's-the-best-between-Messi-Ronaldo-and-Kaká of disposition to wrestle with chaos in the belief that I can cage it.
Usain Bolt, though. If anything might lure me into ranking the greatest sporting feats I have ever witnessed (albeit second-hand), it would be Bolt's escapades last week. The gradation would be crude, though: one thing in first, the rest nowhere. Like the race at the end of Asterix at the Olympic Games, but inverted.
For what it's worth, I don't think I've seen a sportsperson so spectacularly other. I'm sure some of you may be able to make that claim for Michael Jordan; I'm not qualified to do so. Roger Federer may be so good that he can make it look as if, to quote Simon Barnes as quoted by Mark on these pages last month, "his opponent is in fact co-operating with him", but there have always been Rafa and Roland Garros to remind him he is mortal. Tiger Woods is so other that he has reshaped his sport, but that sport is golf, and spectacular it ain't. Even Michael Johnson, the last athlete to strike me so dumb, took until his thirtieth year to break the 200m world record (and then do this to it). By doing what he did in Beijing last summer at just 21, and surpassing it in Berlin, Bolt gives the appearance (illusory, of course) of having arrived fully-formed as the greatest athlete of all time (an appearance all the more vivid for the fact that he hasn't yet had time to fade away or screw up).
Hey, why am I trying to explain it? If you saw, you know.
And there's a fair chance, too, that if you saw, you doubt. There have been so many incidences of sport telling us to look!, no, really, look!, I swear, I'm being serious this time! that wariness is the reflex for many. Scoop Jackson called this right. Sport can draw us in so deeply that it turns the mere act of watching to see what happens next into an intense emotional investment. When the event is shown to be something else, something other than what it convinced us it was, it feels like a betrayal. One too many of those and you learn to fear.
For others, something else is at work here. It's still fear, but it stems from incomprehension as well as hurt: it is the fear of awe. Perhaps it is a natural instinct, honed by evolution, to respond to something so monumentally novel by simply refusing to believe it. Wherefore, I don't bloody well know. Whatever: it is the mentality that gives us people who would have us believe that cabin crew advise us to cower in the brace position if a crash is imminent so as to ensure our swift deaths. There's an irony in there, somewhere.
It is a desire to rationalise the world: "rationalise" in both the traditional sense and the business-theoretical one, whereby the operation is cut to a desirable size and form — all the better, supposedly, to make it function. It is about making things seem certain, predictable. To borrow from a recent Marina Hyde column on another topic, "they have their foresight, you see, and nothing is more valuable than that".
The Observer's Paul Hayward claimed some sort of high ground for scepticism last weekend. Those below are, apparently, lost in "amnesiac cheerleading". Says Hayward:
The veneration of "greatness" feels, as one gets older, like a faintly childish urge to find someone to worship, when all the shades on the scale between triumph and disaster are usually much more revealing.On the one hand, he has a point. To see sport only – perhaps even primarily – as a means of creating victor and vanquished is to misrepresent it. The journey can be more interesting than the destination, the loser more interesting than the winner.
On the other hand: what the fuck?
Here's the thing: I can't prove that Bolt is not on drugs. Similarly, you can't prove that he is. Either could be true – though going on what we know, and despite the instinctive suspicion of many, he is more likely to be clean than not. To believe in the untainted veracity of what we see is a leap of faith. But then, to automatically believe in foul play is itself a leap of faith. It may wear the guise of rationalism, but it is no more based on evidential fact than the less sceptical viewpoint.
Jackson gets it as Hayward seems not to. Plagued by doubt over Bolt Jackson may be, but at least it comes from a real engagement with what he watches, from being willing to embrace greatness, from not being numb to it. Hayward approaches it from the opposite direction. "Disbelief must be suspended" – that is, if you don't get what the fuss is about, you have to playact to get a taste. Implicit in the cynicism of Hayward and those like him – and it is cynicism – is the notion that it is foolish to take something like this at face value. But though this purports to reason, as opposed to wishy-washy untestability, it is rooted in timorous mistrust, in giving precedence to the inherent corruptibility of everything. Furthermore, it's unaware of its own nature. It thinks it's the sole stuff of wisdom.
Sometimes, greatness is just greatness, and when you reject this possibility, or deny its value, it barely seems worth following sport – just as to reject the extraordinary in life would be to render it as so much flavourless, inessential slop. And sometimes, greatness is not greatness. It is inarguably dispiriting, even painful, to be let down and proven wrong like that. But there is a truth, and it exists independently of what you think of it. To exist in fear of it is to regard too highly your role in this game. You may think the angel is made of plaster. You may be right. What of it?
I don't begrudge anyone their doubt. No-one wants to be wrong; no-one wants to get hurt. It's just that some things are bigger than that, you know?