Tuesday, June 24, 2008 Updated: June 25, 11:00 AM ET
Do we really want our athletes to be flawless?
By Tim Keown Page 2
If you're a nitpicker -- and not just a nitpicker but a tightly wound, see-every-flaw kind of person, the type who can spot a speck of dust across the room -- you must absolutely love gymnastics and diving.
The tiniest of mistakes can spell doom in gymnastics.
Outside of presidential politics, is there another human endeavor that magnifies the most insignificant flaws the way the Summer Subjective Sports do?
Welcome to nitpicker's paradise. Every tiny, incremental mistake is greeted with grieving by the competitors, coaches and broadcasters.
(By the way, women's gymnastics already looks as if it's shaping up to be a dysfunctional drama fest. Every time Jana Bieger's severe coach/mom -- or maybe it's Coachmom -- purses her lips, lets out a nice whistle and looks all fired up, everyone at NBC high-fives and orders another round.)
Other sports aren't like this. Vladimir Guerrero can get fooled on a pitch and drop an ugly single to right and be a hero. Brett Favre can run around for 15 seconds and underhand a pass to someone 10 feet away and they'll name a highway after him. But a teenager whose foot twists slightly to the right as she lands on the balance beam after she just finished six midair flips while lighting a cigarette and trying to ignore her mom's whistles -- well, she's a failure.
It just doesn't seem right.
Diving might be the worst, now that I think about it -- because the only people who can see the mistakes are the judges and that one lady on NBC who sounds like Nancy Grace, only without the compassion. Most of the mistakes, near as I can tell, center on the toes.
Which raises a question: Can you marvel at the abilities of the athlete and simultaneously wonder what kind of person is being produced in the process? This isn't assuming athletes are bad people; just kind of incomplete, is all.
In most cases, there's no time for anything else. The gymnasts, the swimmers, the tennis players, the skaters -- it seems so all-encompassing, so consuming and insulated and monastic. There's no room for anything else.
The New York Times had a great piece Monday on the physical quirks exhibited by tennis players, most notably Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. It raised another question: How much of the behavior we see in our better athletes would be considered weird -- or even outright certifiable -- if we saw it in everyday life?
Mr. Federer wore a cardigan when he took the court for his first match at this year's Wimbledon.
Djokovic bounces the ball as many as 30 times before he serves, a habit that infuriates and frustrates his opponents. Nadal obsesses about the position of his water bottles between sets, moving them fractions of inches before letting them rest.
The novelist David Foster Wallace once wrote an exhaustive -- and, because it's DFW, frequently exhausting -- story about a midrange tennis player who had no discernible personality. It was Wallace's well-reasoned contention that the single-minded devotion needed to truly excel at the sport removed all chance for nuance -- tennis players are essentially well-trained automatons.
This truth frustrates us sports fans more than anybody. We want our athletes to be informed and entertaining off the court, too, but it rarely happens. Look at Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer. Aside from Djokovic's penchant for impersonations -- of his competitors only, of course -- we don't know much about any of them. Nadal seems to exist behind a wall of PR people, and Federer is a former racket-tossing brat whose reformed ways make him a bland perfectionist we're forced to enjoy from a distance.
But hey, with the Olympics looming, we're about to enter high season for contrived drama. Everybody's got a story, heartwarming and heart-wrenching and wrapped in the flag. Pity the man who chooses to stand in front of that train.
This Week's List
• I know I sound 900 years old every time I say this, and I know it shows I can't find the intersection of Commerce and Sport with a GPS, but that doesn't make it any less true: The NBA Finals -- just like the World Series -- has become a poorly played anticlimax because the preliminary rounds force teams to play too many games.
• And get the hell off my lawn, you dadgum kids: Once again, the format that would ensure the best competition and the freshest legs would be a first-round best-of-three, followed by a best-of-five conference semifinals, followed by a best-of-seven in both the conference finals and the Finals.
• When they talk about leaving it all on the floor, these two apparently aren't sold on the concept: Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol.
• Just for the heck of it: Tim Teufel.
• Apparently there is such a thing as presumed guilty: Cedric Benson was ordered to install a Breathalyzer in his car that unlocks the ignition only after it doesn't detect alcohol.
• And in other traffic news, the high road remains clear: In what was described as a "freestyle rap in a New York nightclub" on Sunday night, Shaquille O'Neal ripped Kobe Bryant by saying, among other things, "Kobe [expletive], tell me how my [expletive] tastes."
• And finally, I know Shaq has his experiences and I have mine, but: I've always found nothing but trouble when I get going on a freestyle rap.
Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Tim here.