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The Gods of Grace: When Sport is Beautiful | reviews, news & interviews

The Gods of Grace: When Sport is Beautiful

The Gods of Grace: When Sport is Beautiful

A tiny elite of star athletes are angels of motion too: here are 12 unfairly blessed winners (and a dog)

Winners who dance: Blanka Vlašić, Roger Federer, Olga Korbut, Usain Bolt

Faster, higher, stronger - and more graceful. There is a handful of top athletes and sportspeople who are the beautiful people, who have some divine extra dimension to their movement that makes you smile to see them. They're winners, but they're seraphic dancers too, and they make all the other winners look tough and effortful.

Grace is something extra, an excess over necessary talent, a luxury bonus, an unfair advantage. Just as the majority of dancers, despite all their skills and perfect training, lack - unfairly - that indefinable something, so in sport certain winners never look schooled, no matter how complete their training, they just look inimitably and uniquely themselves, at total ease in their skins. 

Something in the way they move twangs emotions in us that have nothing to do with results

Most sportspeople and athletes are only compelling because of their results; when they lose, they're losers. All you feel when watching them is an interest (or none) in their numbers, their records, their finishing position. But the special few are compelling even when losing or letting down their mates or being smack-worthy divas, because something in the way they move twangs emotions in us that have nothing to do with results.

Some of them emit the liberatedness of childhood games in the uninhibited way they attack what they do; some of them have noble elegance in every pounce and lunge; some seem to be revelling at a perpetual party; some have distilled their purpose to a pure, arrow-like ideal.

Boxers, gymnasts, cricketers, athletes, footballers - what these special ones have in common is that they make their peers look faintly clodhopping. A few of them are competing at the London Olympics, and even if they may not necessarily win their expected medals they will still give joy, because they can't help possessing an innate rhythm and fine delight of coordination that reminds us why the cliché "poetry in motion" was coined.

Here are 12 of those special movers, to remind us of what we will subliminally be looking for in addition to world records, as we trawl through the Olympic coverage. And since the gods on Mount Olympus revered animals, and frequently exchanged places with them to achieve their aims, so I allocate today's gods of grace a pet to remind us that movement comes from our animal, instinctive side. This pet muscles firmly into the scene because his improbable victory style will make you laugh, cry and understand.

I recommend muting the sound to silent in all these videos, bar the Dennis Bergkamp and Shane Warne ones (and maybe David Gower, to enjoy Richie Benaud's commentary). Silence helps you shed distractions of time, results, contest and context, so you can quietly revel in the sweetness of motion that creates happiness just by existing.


Eternal children

Usain Bolt, Jamaican sprinter of our time and all time. Such joyously spontaneous flow could not be expected in a remarkably tall man (6ft 5in) with a remarkably long trunk, but he runs as if he's in amazed love with his own speed. You saw it again at London 2012 when he twice finished a golden, carefree jeté ahead of the fastest line-up of sprinters of all time; watch his 200m victory below (the race itself starts at 2.55, but the build-up is fine). You almost see his special lightness of motion better on his victory laps - how unselfconscious his running is.

Olga Korbut, Russian gymnast, in the 1972 Olympics floor routine in Munich - a tiny gem, an enchanting dancer by any standard in a discipline where grace is frequently subsumed by freakish acrobatics, of which naturally she too was mistress in the less extreme parameters of her time. During the London Olympics as a studio commentator, Korbut said firmly she performed entirely to please the public, not to score points.

Evonne Goolagong, Australian tennis-player, her insouciant open-air swing and cool sashay in the great Wimbledon 1976 final making the omnipotent Chris Evert look merely admirably hardworking. Such breezy artistry in tennis has been consigned to the mythical past by today's power clay-court tactics.



Sublime elegance


Roger Federer, Swiss tennis-player, here seen at his gloriously airy peak in 2007, in some highlights from his fifth Wimbledon title final against the earthier Rafael Nadal. If Nadal's play is made excitingly of muscular agility, Federer's is of silk, and no wonder he's smug about it in interviews. He was born with it, and no one else was. It hurt to see the silk fray somewhat in his London Olympics final with Andy Murray - the pain only underlines the special place occupied in the public heart by an artist in a trade of hard-working artisans.


David Gower, English cricketer, the divinely classy stroke-maker who wielded the bat like a feather, his body always in such harmonious balance over his feet that he could rarely be found in a poorly timed move. Here he is in 1979, almost blowing the ball away in a huge innings of 200 not out for England against India.

Blanka Vlašić, Croatian high-jumper, the arrogant, languorous 6ft 4in-tall current no 2 in the world, in a balletic jump-off of soaring backbends in the 2009 world championships with the bouncy German Ariane Friedrich. In this discipline to aim for ultimate grace over the bar is likely to be rewarded by best results, but even among these graceful goddesses, Vlašić has a special tempo of her own. It's painful to see her miss London 2012.


Dennis Bergkamp, Dutch footballer, the Roger Federer of football - this mini-feature with talking heads includes good-quality highlights from his Arsenal career showing how he married nobility to fleetness, wrongfooting all-comers in both lightning effectiveness and opulent, burnished gleam.


Party animals


Ronaldinho, Brazilian footballer, a 21st-century wizard capable of tapdancing on a ball, and a throwback half a century to his similarly crazy-footed compatriot Garrincha (whose tubes sadly are not good-enough quality to get to this page). Both of them convince you they're at a party, and the ball happens to be their witty girlfriend.


Muhammed Ali, American boxer, sexy, lithe, floating like a butterfly, gloating like a crow over his earthbound opponents. Here he is in an early bout against the veteran Archie Moore in 1962 - a contrast between the gorgeous physical cantabile of the 20-year-old Clay and the traditional hunkered-down, power boxing style.

Shane Warne, Australian spin bowler - watch the acrobatic grace of the ball as much as the man, whose minutely nuanced magician's action is as calculated to deceive every eye as David Blaine's. In this teasing tape Warne himself explains exactly what he did, but even so you can't see how he did it.



The power of purity

Sebastian Coe, English middle-distance runner and multiple world-record holder. In his 800m world record run in Florence in 1981 the pared-down sweetness of his flea-bodied, light-footed motion by comparison with other runners takes the breath away - see the second lap in particular. But at the London Olympics, the miraculous 800m world record-setter and gold medallist David Rudisha of Kenya showed a larger-scale phrasing and balance that was inspired by Coe and may, on reflection, surpass it.

Jesse Owens, the iconic American sprinter, here in the semi-finals and finals of the 1936 Olympic 100m dash in Berlin. A comparison with Usain Bolt 80 years later is fascinating - here is the polar opposite of style, the head still, the body classically balanced, fit to be immortalised on a podium.


And a dog

Scurlogue Champ, greyhound superstar of the 1980s, a dog fit for the gods. This is what he did in every race, without a jockey or a trainer to steer him, restrain him or otherwise affect his tactics. He loitered at the back, lolloping lazily as if he was in the wrong place - until he made his own choice about just when to unleash the terrible beauty of his ability.

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Shed the distractions of contest and results, and simply revel in the sweetness of motion that creates happiness just by existing

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