Tuesday, September 28, 2004


The one sporting event I would have paid most to see in the last year is Randy Johnson's "perfect game" against the Atlanta Braves in May. For those of you who don't know much about baseball, a perfect game occurs when the pitcher retires all 27 of the opposing team's hitters in order - that is to say, not a single one of them reaches base. It is such a difficult task that only 17 such games have been played in history. To maintain such complete and utter dominance over the course of a whole game is a simply incredible feat. Most of us in life crave perfection, to obtain it at such a high level must be a marvellous thing to behold.

Of course, when I say it was the event I would have paid most to see, I can only say this retrospectively. And watching the match retrospectively would lose such a huge part of the excitement - the real thrill of the event is through experiencing it live; the gradual realisation that such a feat is even thinkable, the tension that builds as each consecutive batter is retired, peaking as the final out stands before the pitcher, followed by the excitement, amazement, and admiration as the impossible is achieved.

Why, then, do I find myself as enraptured with this event as much as I am when I read about the World Series perfect game, Roger Bannister's sub-four-minute mile, or when I remember watching Michael Johnson at the Atlanta Olympics, or (forgive the indulgence here) Allan Donald's spell of bowling in the 2000 C&G Trophy final, a spell of bowling so devastating that it surely would have turned the match had it not been for the cruel intervention of the rain? It is because the drama of sport is largely based on imperfection. Even in the most wonderful of memories for a fan - take the 2003 RWC Final, for instance - Ben Kay's handling error in front of the try-line, or the errors in the scrum giving Australia their last-minute equalising penalty, it is the knowledge that at any moment something might go wrong that adds so much to the experience. And in the course of any normal game, these imperfections will occur, no matter how infrequently, and it is the sign of a great side to overcome these errors and still prevail. For the tension to focus on someone at the absolute pinnacle of their talents, and for perfection to triumph, is something that should be able to unite all sports fans.

Writing this, I am reminded of the Swedish defender humiliated by the "Cruyff turn" at the World Cup, who said on retirement it was the favourite moment of his career. For it was the one time that nothing he could have done could possibly have stopped the attacker; it will be remembered for how perfect and unexpected the moment was. Moments like this do go beyond the most exciting of sports events - I remember the Australia-South Africa Cricket World Cup semi-final in 1999, which came down to the last over and ended in a tie as one of the most thrilling events you could watch - utterly compelling, a match that genuinely kept you glued to the screen. Even then, the game ended in farce, a total lapse of judgement and an easy run-out. Ultimately, this is why the perfection I was referring to earlier is so wonderful, as it transcends just about every other event, unless you take a passionate interest in it.

Why, then, am I writing this now? Partially it was watching an NFL match between the Indianapolis Colts and the Green Bay Packers, led by two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game. Yes, the match was still comparatively full of mistakes, but it was a joy to watch two such skilled performers battle it out head-to-head. But partially it is a growing disillusionment at the moaning that follows every single football match. In the heat of a game, I admit, I am one of the worst for shouting at a referee or moaning about officiating decisions. At the end of the day, however, it is rare that this is borne of anything other than frustration - even given a bounce, the better team will win more often than not, and a truly great team will win in spite of the 'bounces' going the other way. What really irritates me is the whingeing of fans of losing teams that can continue for days afterwards - not in the way of informed discussion, but simple moaning with no real constructive criticism present. Instead, we should accept life may not be fair, that teams have the rub of the green against them from time to time. Continue instead with the pursuit of greatness. And when it arrives, in whatever form it may take, we should sit back, applaud, and bask in its glory.