He's a blur. The wind shakes the trees along the fence and the rain comes down again and the Manhattan skyline is everywhere behind him, but without looking or even trying to see, your eye is drawn to the brushstroke he makes by moving so fast against the background. It takes you by surprise how fast. This is last Saturday out on Randall's Island.
On his way to the blocks, Tyson Gay is warming up on the far side of the track at Icahn Stadium. He's out there just at the corner of your vision. The women's pole vault and the women's high jump and the women's steeplechase are all happening in the foreground, but he launches himself and takes three or four strides at speed, and the speed and the stride are what you notice. Upright. Taller than you thought. Hands fanned wide, arms and legs high, working. He's wearing a black track suit. And somehow the scene of that black suit fast across the grass and the green trees and the blue track and the gray sky and the long line of skyscrapers in the rain is briefly and impossibly beautiful. This is right before the first heat of the men's 100 meters. Maybe this is why we're here.
"Beauty" gets the short end of the mainstream sports discussion these days, hidden as it is under a mountain of numbers. Salaries, times, records, statistics: Sports have become easier to quantify than they are to qualify. And that's not all bad, given the kind of romantic puffery we've been prone to in the past. Soccer feels like the last holdout, but even the phrase "the beautiful game" has the hard-used tone of a trademark. We'll lose something important if we ignore "beauty" in sports altogether, because in it we still find the deep reassurances of human power and grace.
Occasionally an announcer points out a good-looking golf swing, or mentions a batter with a perfect turn on the ball. But with a couple of exceptions we marginalize the aesthetics of sports, and leave the ideas and ideals of beauty to eggheads and old poets and ancient pottery.
Some of this is attributable to the assumption that viewers can judge television pictures for themselves, I suppose, and some of it has to do with traditional limits on broadcast time and newspaper space. Mostly, though, it feels like a long-standing reluctance to think or speak in those terms, a wariness about seeming insufficiently butch, not just in the locker room or the garage but up in the press box, too. Which is a little heartbreaking. Because like it or not, as much as metrics or teachable moments, cautionary tales or metaphors, ticket sales or mythology, sports exist to produce beauty. Weirdly, even in the age of slow-motion replays set to music expressly for the purpose of conveying how beautiful the power sweep can be, sports writing doesn't have much of a vocabulary for "pretty."
And none at all for "handsome."
Still, the Memorial Day weekend was a reasonable example of what might be possible. From New York to Monaco to Indianapolis to Charlotte, from track to basketball to Formula 1, and from machine-age aesthetics to the perfections and imperfections of the human form, there was beauty everywhere if you chose to see it. The noise and the colors poured into the corners and out of the corners at the 500 and the 600 and the Grand Prix.
And maybe that's OK, because sports should reflect back to us everything human. Including our own beauty or foolishness. We watch as we always have to see ourselves, and to stumble across the thing we've never seen before -- Mariano blown up, LeBron thrown out.
We watch to see the absolute beauty of this. A work of perfect circumstantial art.
There must be some reason we spend billions every year on this stuff. Sentiment? Memory? Tribalism? Passion? It can't just be the distraction, can it? The gambling? There are lots of other ways to get at those.
Kids understand the beauty part best. You see it in how they imitate their heroes. How they exaggerate the most beautiful gestures of every game -- the stretch for the fingertip catch; the sweeping helix of the home run swing; the impossible windmilling Nerf dunk. They pick up on the poetry of the body first, then add the narrative as they go.
Early on it's how -- not how many. Later, the real artists understand it's both.
In the rain and the wind, Jenn Suhr wins the women's pole vault flying, and Blanka Vlasic takes the women's high jump. Lidya Chepkurui of Kenya wins the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase. No matter how earthbound the viewer, to see each is an exhilaration.
Five thousand people gather in the rain to watch a footrace. We come to the stadium for the same reason we go to a museum: to see the greatest possible concentration of human effort and ingenuity. So there's the beauty of history here, too, of an unbroken continuum back to those pots and pitchers of antiquity. That Jesse Owens qualified for the 1936 Olympic Games on the old Downing Stadium track beneath this one seems not so long ago. He ran a 10.4 that day.
Nearly 80 years later Tyson Gay is in the blocks. Set. As thick through the hams as you'd expect for a sprinter, but much thinner through the calves. The radical taper from hip to heel is like that of a racehorse, or a mid-century modern table leg. He was made for this, and made himself for this. The wind falls and rises and shakes the trees.
The gun. The blur. Ten seconds.