The Big Question: no other sport pits mind against mind and body against body quite so mercilessly. Tanya Aldred gives athletics the gold...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine July/August 2012
FASTER, HIGHER, stronger: sport doesn’t get any simpler. It is an inbuilt human instinct, a race we have been part of since we clocked as chubby-legged babies that it was possible to move from one side of the room to the other without being carried. Think back to primary school: the innocent six-year-old understands her place in the hierarchy very well. She knows who is tallest, who is cleverest, and, above all, who is quickest. In that desperate race from one side of the playground to the other, there is no hiding in the shadows. There is only one winner.
And there in a nutshell is the appeal of athletics. It is a body against a body, a mind against a mind. It is unashamedly elitist, cruel and selfish, but I love it. I love the extraordinary bodies: the will-o’-the-wisp 10,000-metre runners, the stonkingly huge sprinters, the beautiful, doe-legged female high jumpers. Each a mark of human progress—a freak of genetics honed by endless training and the right sort of carbs.
And I love the social mix: no rich boys’ club this. It brings pride to the otherwise unexceptional, and here I speak from the heart. I was a skinny 12-year-old with NHS glasses, plaits, a Radio 4 addiction and a briefcase. Then, from nowhere, one PE lesson, I won the 1,500 metres. Truly, a different world opened up.
The track trumps the field events, though they have their own quiet appeal. Long jump is thrilling, with the poignancy of that plasticine by the take-off board and the impossibility of travelling so far in the air; javelin heroic, in a spear-carrying, hunter-gatherer way.
And then the running…the blue riband depends on whether you value power or endurance, nerve, cunning or batons. The marathon is profoundly, deeply moving to run or watch, but most prefer the 100 metres—a preening, posturing, gamble of a race, but there is no arguing with the fastest man on earth. Though it was a little disappointing when my small son and I looked up the animal 100 metres and discovered that Usain Bolt would finish only 28th, just ahead of an elephant.
The downsides are the corporate carnage that surrounds the Olympics, which athletics spearheads, and doping. Since the dirtiest race in history at Seoul in 1988, everyone is doubted. It’s no fun watching drugged-up humans: you might as well go into town on a Saturday night. But without proof, we must believe. And if we believe, athletics is a joy.
What do you think is the best sport? Have your say by voting in our online poll. Read Patrick Barclay on football, Samantha Weinberg on equestrianism, Dan Rosenheck on baseball and Sambit Bal on cricket
Tanya Aldred is a sports columnist at the Daily Telegraph. She used to cover sport for the Guardian