IT’S NOT easy to verbally describe a sporting genius. For instance, how do you explain the finesse behind Roger Federer’s drop shot? Or how the mercurial Andres Iniesta consistently weaves magic on the football field? It’s nigh impossible. What one can do instead is delve deeper into the psyche of these supreme players—what drives them and how they manage to perform in situations where others would perish. In The Greatest: The Quest For Sporting Perfection, author Matthew Syed, through his collected columns, not only manages to condense the stories behind some of the all-time sporting greats, but also looks at what made them great—support teams, practice and mental strength.
Syed, a journalist and former sportsperson (he was the British table tennis number one for almost a decade), has expertly divided his columns into four parts. Apart from an excellent section that talks about some of the most renowned global sporting icons (Cristiano Ronaldo, Michael Schumacher, Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova, Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps, to name a few), these four parts look at the mentors, coaches and parents, who are “so often ignored in our individualistic culture”; athletes who performed under relentless pressure and the ones who crumbled; the way some players ply their trade and the hardships they face; and finally, the “complex relationship” between sports and politics.
The manner in which these columns—spanning over many years and mostly connected to watershed moments in the sporting fraternity—have been combined under different themes is remarkable, to say the least. Along the way, the author also manages to dispel some long-standing myths that have plagued the world of sports—for instance, the notion that an athlete was “born with the talent”. In a September 2013 column titled Practice makes Perfect, Syed writes about how he thinks the “simple notion of talent” is misleading. “The power of practice, on the other hand, remains vastly underrated,” he writes.
Syed also revisits some of the most popular stories that left an indelible mark on the world of sports. Billy Beane’s use of sabermetrics (baseball stats) with the Oakland Athletics is a case in point. During the 2002 Major League Baseball season, Beane, then general manager of Oakland Athletics, assembled a competitive team—despite a limited budget—with the help of baseball data by looking at certain attributes that were undervalued. As Syed writes, Beane’s model was not only replicated by other baseball franchises, it also inspired teams in other sporting disciplines to try their luck at moneyball. “That is why Beane’s arrival in baseball was so propitious: it was not just a time when sabermetrics was taking off, but also a time when the baseball establishment was hostile to the data,” Syed writes.
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A recurring name throughout the book is legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. What makes Ali’s presence in the book so special is the fact that apart from exclusive columns about the man himself, he is remembered in accounts about his trainer Angelo Dundee and his most famous rival Joe Frazier. Syed writes how Frazier was among the greatest of ‘heavyweights’, but “he will always be defined by the rivalry with Ali, the pain they shared in the ring, and the agonies they, in different ways, endured beyond it.”
It’s perhaps fitting that Syed saves the best for the last. The last column, titled Unquestionably the Greatest (dated June 6, 2016, three days after Ali passed away), recollects the moments that defined Ali’s career and ultimately his life—how he dropped his name Cassius Clay in 1964 and converted to Islam, the fabled ‘Thrilla in Manila’ match in 1975 and how he became one of the most “influential cultural figures of the last century”.
The Greatest is a must-read masterpiece, and not just for sports enthusiasts.