Give Me Words: some thoughts on athletic genius as we approach the Olympics

"Lewis, give me words."

 --Ashton Eaton to NBC announcer Lewis Johnson, shortly after breaking the decathlon world record

The Olympics is on everyone's mind in the running world. Though I wasn't able to watch the 10,000m trials, I did manage to follow it pretty well by refreshing on the message board. I'm psyched to see that Ritz and Teg made the team along with Rupp (who of course was the favorite) as I count those guys as part of my generation. (1)

Though I never approached the elite levels of the sport, I guess I got close enough to understand just how extraordinary these runners are. When I watch swimming or gymnastics or the NBA finals, I am impressed by the athletes, inspired by their efforts, and I can see the spark of athletic genius. But when I watch the distance runners, that genius comes through in a way that is simultaneously more intimate and less understandable, if that makes any sense at all.

As David Foster Wallace explains in "How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart," athletic greatness is the most visible form of genius. "Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power, grace, and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of an animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves." What's strange about the visibility of this genius -- and this is the point of DFW's essay -- is that its source is opaque. Athletic genius is simultaneously obvious and literally unbelievable.

The unbelieveability of the runners in this year's trials 10k hits a distance runner with special vitality. I know what it means to run a 64 second quarter. Ten kilometers is a distance that is written pretty deep in my bones. But the two things together -- 64 second quarters for 10 kilometers -- leaves me speechless. As familiar as I am with these numbers, with the 400m oval, with the attitudes and habits of training and racing, I still cannot fathom these performances. This contrast between the familiar and the unfathomable is what keeps me riveted. My experience in the sport brings the genius of these runners into a sort of clarity that I don't find when watching other sports.

This is from a great photo essay by the Oregon Register.
Kant had a special concept for the experience I am talking about here: the sublime. He said that the feeling of pleasure that we get is due to the stimulation of our intellectual faculties. We want to apply a concept to what we've seen, but the concept refuses to fit, so we continue to "play" with the disjunct between understanding and experience. The sublime play of the beautiful points us toward unknown possibilities of experience and expands the human horizon.

After these great performances, both in the trials and eventually at the Olympics, we will be treated to all manner of post-race interviews, human interest stories, and professional analysis. Chances are pretty good that the talk will be dissatisfying, cliched at best, cheesy at worst. After Ashton Eaton's world record this weekend, he fielded countless questions that wanted to know exactly how it felt to be a transcendent athlete. All he could do was smile, give credit to his competitors, the community, talk about work and effort, being in the moment, waiting for it to sink in.

That's because athletic genius can't be put into words by the athlete himself. When reading DFW's essay, it starts to be clear that athletic genius and verbal genius are two different things entirely. Athletic performance is deep and inarticulate. The poetic and expressive mind has nothing to do with it, and in fact can only inhibit the deep focus required to do great things. DFW concludes his essay with the paradoxical thought that "we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only one able to truly see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it -- and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence."

I don't think DFW means this as an insult to athletic genius, and I don't take it to be a comment on the intelligence of athletes. There are intelligent and articulate athletes but their articulateness, I submit, has little to do with their athletic genius. Reflect, for instance, on our your own moments of personal genius. I think you will find that at the heart of them there is something that resists articulation. A blindness and a dumbness. Even as he was writing this essay, I understood DFW to be reflecting upon his own artistic gift, on the arbitrary nature of his own ability to string together a work of genius, and the irony that he could write with lucidity on the nature of athletic genius, but that when it came to the meaning and purpose of his own life, he remained blind and dumb, even in the face of critical success. (2)

What is the lesson in all this? While we watch these geniuses, I think we should appreciate them. But we should also appreciate our own reactions to them. It's us, the fans of the sport, those who watch, who bring these performances to life. The doing depends on the athlete, but the athlete depends on us to give meaning to that doing. This dependence forces a sort of responsibility on us to meet their effort with ours, to try to articulate and demonstrate the fullness of what we see and relate it to our own lives. The marketers get this, but I think that the rest of us should get in on the action. (3)

The Olympics is a chance for athletes, but just as essentially it's a chance for us to see something beautiful and to respond to it. It's in this response that the Olympics finds its meaning for the rest of us. After four years in which the media has been pretty fixated on how to respond to the ugly, I'm hoping we haven't forgotten how to respond to something beautiful. The athletes need the Olympics, but it seems to me that the rest of us need them even more.

*  *  *

(1) In fact, I remember reading an article way back in high school about Ritz's training. He was a year or so younger than me, but training harder. That article spurred my first attempt at 70 miles per week, an attempt that led first to ITBS, but eventually to running the sorts of times that made me a varsity level college athlete.

(2) I am alluding here to the fact that DFW took his own life quite savagely, and that in spite of his prodigious talents left behind a relatively small literary opus.

(3) I have to admit, I really like this Nike ad.


  1. Not enough footnotes for a post on DFW!

    1. Not enough awesome new vocabulary words, either!

  2. Any chance you ahve a link to this old article or can find it ? Sounds interesting: "In fact, I remember reading an article way back in high school about Ritz's training"

    1. It wasn't much of an article; I think that it was a profile of some of the Footlocker qualifiers; Ritz must have been one of the younger qualifiers, or maybe my memory is playing tricks on me.

      I did recently come across this 2001 piece from Sports Illustrated on Ritz and Webb, which would have come out later than when I was in high school. Pretty cool read on these guys, just as they were beginning their careers:

    2. Nice - thanks for sharing

  3. (3) I have to admit, I really like this Nike ad.

    This ad brings me back. I remember running with the Jr. High boys cross country team because they didn't have a team for girls. I took scores and gathered their bags at the meets in exchange for running with them after school. One day on a run back to the school grounds we passed the girls softball team. I wasn't in their way or step on their field but I was unexpectadly hit in the shoulder by a softball. It hurt so hard, I couldn't even cry but looked to see where it came from. It was from the girls team and they stood there laughing at me making comments of me thinking I was a boy and a loser. I remember seeing the boys look at me in confusion and also not knowing what to do. Heck they are still 1/2 the size of the softball girls so they aren't going to step up. One said, "forget them, stay with us." So that's what I did, I looked away because I was so mad that someone was telling me that girls shouldn't run XC.

    One year later and I go to high school and join the GIRLS X-Country team. The girls softball team had a rough season. I did not. I was the first freshman or any cross country female to qualify for the state meet.

    Four years later, I went to college. I was the first freshman and femal athlete to qualify for Cross Country and track nationals.

    I'm so glad I looked away and kept on running...

    1. Willie -- thanks for the comment, as always. It is amazing sometimes to think how things have changed, especially when these sorts of changes also at the same time seem slow to come.

  4. I hadn't seen that Nike ad, but it's great. My daughter wants to be a Jedi Knight when she grows up and refuses to wear skirts. She probably doesn't have the genes to be Joan Benoit, but I do like where she's headed so far.

    Great articulation of the nobility of the great athletes and the nobility of appreciating them, too.


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