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As 2023 closes, a year-end salute to a unique species

Why do we give athletes our time? Maybe we find here the sweaty expression of imagination, the opera of struggle and the glitter of high skill

Australia's batsman Usman Khawaja on the first day of the second cricket Test match between Australia and Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 26 December.
Australia's batsman Usman Khawaja on the first day of the second cricket Test match between Australia and Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 26 December. (AFP)

Tripping over the interesting is the redeeming allure of the internet. Last week I stumbled on the elegantly named Vulpes vulpes (the red fox), collided with Ursus maritimus (the polar bear) and then discovered a genus of moths called Athletes. I was idly surfing while writing a column and it struck me that these sporting people I write about all the time, they’re pretty much a species on their own.

They’re remarkably adaptable, eat differently, sometimes wear armour to work and occasionally carry their own pillows to hotels. They don’t think like us and don’t think they’re like us. An ageing swimmer in Singapore, in a most beautiful line plainly delivered, told me in autumn, “Just being a normal person, it’s scary. It’s weird for me to say it.”

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The lifespan of the athletic species is shorter. Their ability to repeat an act is insane. Their bodies are unlike ours. And pain is only a passing annoyance. Yeah, they shrug, it happens. I know a woman kayaker, not very tall, who uses 55kg dumbbells in the gym. And a five-time Paralympic gold medallist who holds a medicine ball in the crook of her arms (her fingers can’t hold anything) and hurls them. Survival of the fittest isn’t an idea, it’s an anthem.

I have spent 37 years hanging around this species and it’s rarely dull. Last week I spent a while flipping through year-end pictures. This species, too, needs the still camera to catch it while moving. A hummingbird’s wings caught in flight is rivalled by a boxer’s glove resetting a rival’s jaw. Boxers, a subspecies of their own, are brutish yet somehow funny. When gifted middleweights Errol Spence Jr and Terence Crawford readied to meet this year, the former called himself Big Fish so the latter promised a Fish Fry.

One of the photos was of a South Korean swimmer at practice at the Asian Games, a bottle of water, one-third full, on her head as she did the backstroke. The exercise was to ensure her head stayed still and perhaps you’ve seen this before but it is a mesmerising tutorial in balance and perfection. Do other species work as hard? Of course. But we have time, they race against it.

I enjoy the disciplined monotony of practice and chew technique with athletes over coffee. I read, interrogate and once clambered into a fencing outfit to spar with a junior world No.1. But our species and theirs, we’ll never see sport the same, in part because only they get to be in the arena.

On a February afternoon, Ian Thorpe, an imposing man of striking gentleness outside the water, told me that before he entered the arena, he would flick some switch within himself. A big man grew. An aura glinted. “All of my competitors after I finished competing, said that I used to freak them out in how I could do that. As soon as I walked out, it was my arena”.

Champions are another subspecies, they don’t think like the rest of the field, they’re often nit-picking obsessives, who sometimes cry, as the wondrous women’s golfer Ko Jin-young sometimes does on the range. Cry? Why? Unflinchingly, she told me, “Because I don’t like that feel.” It’s not just precision athletes pursue, but a sensation.

Because we see so many of them, every year, every sport, we might feel we comprehend athletes, but they know we have no idea about what it takes to win, then win again, and win once more.

“I always tell people,” Thorpe said, “if you like gambling always bet on the underdog. But if you’re a fan of sport, always go for the champion. And the reason is that it’s a lot harder to defend. The underdog usually wins because they don’t have the same pressure. They don’t know what it’s like to actually be the champion. And, yeah, we probably don’t do enough to actually prepare to win. What do you do after you win?”

Athletes in 2023 could be witless, boring, profane, selfish (it’s a self-indulgent profession), racist and flushed with narcissism but we keep coming back. What do we want from a sporting year, why do we return to stadiums, why do we give athletes our time, is a deeply individual thing.

Maybe we come to read writer Rahul Bhattacharya who can intoxicate you with a single cricketing line. Maybe we come to escape, to vent, to be part of tribes even, sadly, if it means not applauding a rival. Maybe we find here the sweaty expression of imagination, the opera of struggle and the glitter of high skill. Maybe we come for the rawness, for Thanasi Kokkinakis falling to Andy Murray in five hours and 45 minutes and then posting a poignant tweet: “This fucking sport man...”

Maybe we come to find patterns, appreciate tactics and dissect talent into comprehensible data. Maybe we come to be saved, lifted, entertained and enlightened. Or married in a manner of speaking. I have a friend who thinks of herself as Mrs Nadal. Maybe we come to be moved by athletes whose shoes speak different languages—Lionel Messi’s still speak genius, Sakshi Malik’s speak despair, Usman Khawaja’s speak decency. “Freedom is a human right,” he wrote on his.

The most spectacular chapter of the year was the Women’s World Cup, for its freedom and flair, the absence of acting, Sam Kerr’s goal, Marta’s speech (go find it) and the scattered images left behind after matches. Australia’s Ellie Carpenter wrapping her arms around Denmark’s Signe Braun. Sweden’s Jonna Andersson consoling Japan’s Maika Hamano. Ona Batlle of Spain comforting England’s Lucy Bronze.

Here was respect, appreciation, community. Here was the recognition of similar journeys endured by a sisterhood, of indignities met and struggles faced. They were gestures of profound grace and you almost never see this in other places, not in business or medicine or law.

Think of it as a species thing.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold. He posts @rohitdbrijnath.

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