The Limits of Sport

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SEPTEMBER 16, 1981

The Limits of Sport

Tradition has it that when Alexander the Great had battled his way to India, he sat down and cried because there were no new worlds to conquer. Even if merely a dramatic fabrication, it is nonetheless a perfect metaphorical expression of the ancient Greek mentality. These w(?re a people motivated by what the cultural historian Jakob Burckhardt called "the agonal drive," an endemic compulsion to excel, outdo all others, be number one. I would prefer to label this attitude "the Achilles Complex"—and it is no coincidence that the great Alexander was obsessed by the figure of Homer's angry young man.

But to what end was all of Achilles's education directed? It is concisely expressed in his father's parting words to him as the young warrior embarks for Troy. Peleus admonishes Achilles "always to be the very best, distinguished from everyone else" (Iliad 11. 784). Of course the lad needed little paternal exhortation to spur him on his quest for glory. Yet it is curious to note how the ancient Greeks defined "excellence." We rarely find Homeric heroes boasting of how many men (or monsters) they have slain, or even—another very valid index—how much treasure they have captured. The struggle for Achilles's armor after his death is not for divinely wrought equipment, but for the glory that would go to its possessor: the distinction of being "the very best, distinguished from everyone else," The honor wasn't quantifiable; it was absolute.

As Bruno Snell demonstrates in The Discovery of The Mind, the ancient Greeks had no concept of the inner man, Achilles was motivated toward outdoing others, but not necessarily outdoing himself. No doubt when he killed Hector he suffered a depressing case of ne plus ultra. Like his spiritual descendant Alexander, he had reached the outer limits of achievement. There could be nothing more save death.

The Greeks also had no concept of the "record" as a measurement of something previously unsurpassed. The word itself only appears in this sense in the late 19th century, and could never have evolved without Renaissance humanism and its emphasis on individual achievement. Leonardo was striving not so much to be the best in any one of his many fields (he was, one might say, an intellectual "decathlete"), but to extend his own talents further and further. He even longed to fly. Yet what were his dying words? He is said to have muttered, "But I have done nothing!"

The values of Achilles have been obsolete for thousands of years. But the spirit of Leonardo is alive and well, inspiring both the first and the last man who finish the Boston Marathon. Indeed, whether one has covered the distance in 2:09 or 9:02, every marathoner is thinking, "But I have done nothing!" I presume to speak for marathon runners because I have been one. Years ago I rubbed shoulders briefly with Olympians and world champions. Most importantly I have exchanged thoughts with them. And I have discovered that only a single small trait separates me from the likes of Abebe Bikila and Billy Rodgers: talent. Yes, their feet move a little faster. But still our hearts and minds work in perfect synchrony. And the marathon makes philosophers of us all. But then, what other sport gives you so much time to think?

In 1953 I was in a serious accident and almost lost my right leg. When at last I could stand and walk a bit, the doctor prescribed light running to help stimulate the atrophied muscles. 1 was put into the care of our high school track coach for special supervision. After a long while I was able to run without limping. Later still I could trot two or three miles. And then more, and more. . . . Soon "unofficial" running was not enough.

In the spring of 1955, I entered the Boston Marathon for the first time. Naturally, my goal merely was to cover that immense distance. And with much difficulty 1 succeeded, in the unspectacular time of 3:43. What happened at the finish line is both symbolic and true: I had stationed a college classmate with a camera to record my historic achievement if and when I actually made it. I crossed. He clicked. My magnificent exploit was now preserved for eternity. Except that in the excitement of the moment, my friend had neglected a small technical detail. He had not put film in his camera. He was terribly chagrined, and wondered how I could forgive him. But I was unperturbed. The instant I crossed the finish line I experienced a profound psychic metamorphosis. It no longer seemed important merely to have completed the course. The achievement, like my friend's camera, was suddenly empty. For within me a new voice loudly shouted citius.

Yes, the demons were speaking Latin because they knew that classics was my major at Harvard. Such a study fosters a hypersensitivity to the subtleties of grammar, and it enabled me to make an interesting cultural discovery; the ancient Greeks aspired to the superlative. Achilles had to be aristos Achaion, "the very best of the Achaians." But modern man strives ever onward in the self-ameliorating comparative: citius altius fortius— faster, higher, stronger.

The aforementioned is, I confess, merely a desperate attempt to find an intellectual explanation for an overwhelming irrational psychic impulse. At 3:43 p.m. on the afternoon of April 19, 1955, I was not luxuriating in self-satisfaction at having just run 26 miles 385 yards. 1 was obsessed by how much faster I might be able to cover the same course in a year's time. After five years of improved marathon times, each beset by escalating expectation, I stood at the Boston starting line with the ultimate in mind—I wanted to break the three-hour mark.

The records show that my time was 2:56 that year. They do not show, however, that even then my joy was muted. The inner songs of triumph were drowned out by a cacophony of citius. Three hours was no longer fraught with mystical significance. I was free to dream of going much faster. Indeed, considering how far ahead so many others were, there was ample room for fantasy.

There have been many so-called "magic" barriers in athletic performances. In 19th-century America, there was an almost pathological compulsion to try to cycle a mile a minute. This seemingly impossible feat was accomplished at last in 1899. Yet the first man to do it, one Charles Murphy, is today a mere footnote in history. For years cyclists have been able to go twice that fast.

Still, without any question, the most famous barrier in sports history was the four-minute mile. And yet I seriously wonder if it would have acquired such mystique if the first man to break it had not been that eloquent, obsessive Roger Bannister. Throughout his autobiography we sense his all-consuming fixation to cut two brief seconds from his previous best time. After all, Glenn Cunningham, that great miler of the 1930s, claimed that he had often surpassed four minutes in practice sessions, but it had never seemed important to have to do so officially in a race. He had just wanted to win.

Not Bannister. To him, breaking four minutes would be extending the "ultimate" in human capability. Indeed, as a doctor he believed that the effort required would be so enormous that the runner would exhaust his entire oxygen reserve a few yards before the finish and have to complete the race as a semiconscious reflex action He planned his race according to his own theories. The rest is history.

And look at the photos of Bannister after his epoch-making run on May 6,1954. His face shows that his body had not an ounce of reserve. He could not have done an instant better. His 3:59.4 had to be the ultimate time for the mile. Yet on August 7 of that same year. Bannister ran 3:58,8. Without collapsing. Clearly, once he had broken four minutes he felt no further psychic inhibition. There was no magic in 3:58. Nor does there appear to be in 3:50. Values are what they are, Hamlet tells us, "because thinking makes it so,"

Only July 18,1979, the London Daily Express wrote the following of a sub-3:50 race: "Coe came up the final straight looking almost relaxed, hardly gasping. . . , What a fantastic contrast to the complete exhaustion of . , Sir Roger Bannister. . . . "

Of course the barriers are purely mental, Sebastian Coe was relaxed in Oslo because he did not consider 3:49 any kind of ultimate. Indeed, when he ran 3:48.5 on August 19 of this year, he confessed to being "somewhat disappointed." And how did he feel ten days later after bettering his mile record by yet another full second to 3:47.3? "I'd like to think there's more to come," he declared laconically. How much more Coe would not venture to predict- Because somewhere in a corner of his consciousness lurks a notion of the very fastest he thinks he can go and he dares not articulate this theoretical limit.

Perhaps Sebastian Coe secretly believes 3:30 unattainable. He would do well not to say so, because sooner or later some madman will appear on the track and prove him wrong. There are simply no absolute limits.

This is no mere romantic view. Who in his right mind would have imagined, much less predicted, that at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico a meteor named Bob Beamon would long-jump 29'2''? Such a distance seemed beyond human capabilities. It couldn't be considered remotely possible until it had actually happened.

Sports publications employ various abbreviations to designate special times that athletes run, or distances they throw or jump. The most familiar example is "WR," world record- But the letters I regard as most significant are "PR," meaning personal record. It is one of the major humanistic advances in sport that today we take notice of the occasion when the athlete outdoes him or herself. Very few of us can be with Sebastian Coe as he completes that final lap, yet we can nonetheless live the life of citius altius fortius.

There is now age-group competition, an invention which can only be surpassed if Ponce de Leon should appear with water from the fountain of youth. How else could I have been joyful on my 40th birthday? I will even approach SO with euphoria, because that will mean yet anotherset of standards to challenge. One would assume that the late Larry Lewis of San Francisco was a very happy man—on his one-hundredth birthday, and several birthdays thereafter—when he raced 100 meters under official conditions. To my knowledge he still holds the world's record for ages 100-106.

And yet I wonder if, as each of them traveled homeward after a record-breaking run, old Larry Lewis and young Sebastian Coe did not think the same thoughts, share the same state of mind: "But I have done nothing."

It is inherent in human nature not to accept limits. Alexander, weeping for new worlds to conquer, was doomed to unhappiness. For this impetuous young Macedonian never really mastered the essence of Greek wisdom. As Montaigne remarked, "Alexander only conquered the world, but Socrates conquered himself”

Novelist Erich Segal covered the 1972 and 1976 Olympics for ABC-TV. He currently teaches classics at Yale.

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posted in: boston, america, india, abebe bikila, billy rodgers, bob beamon, bruno snell, charles murphy, glenn cunningham, jakob burckhardt, larry lewis, roger bannister, sebastian coe, harvard, the boston marathon

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