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30 October 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 3:52am

Sometimes, the best of sport can find eternal life

Ed Smith’s Left Field column. 

By Ed Smith

Trying to rescue Naomi Campbell from the overzealous attentions of Mike Tyson, the Oxford philosopher A J “Freddie” Ayer – according to Ben Rogers, his biographer – inserted himself between the boxer and the supermodel. “Do you know who the f*** I am?” Tyson objected. “I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” The 77-year-old Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic. We are both pre-eminent men in our field; I suggest we talk about this like rational men.”

Picking up where Ayer left off, the Royal Institute of Philosophy has collected a fine set of essays entitled Philosophy and Sport. Sport’s place as a philosophical or aesthetic enterprise has always been unclear. “Sport is an art”, a Reebok T-shirt announced in the 1990s. But is it? I concede that sportsmen, however beautiful their play, cannot easily be categorised as artists. They must seek victory; beauty can only be an accidental by-product. Nonetheless, the experience of watching sport can become an artistic one.

Many beautiful things cannot be classified as art. In The Principles of Art, the philosopher R G Collingwood attempts to define the difference between art and craft. A skilled worker in a furniture workshop might be highly skilled. But he is not an artist; he is a craftsman. Art, according to Collingwood, demands a separation of means and ends. There must be an act of alchemy, the emergence of a creative vision. This is hard for a sportsman.

What about watching sport? At times, as a spectator of sport at its best, I’ve felt that the experience had a distinctly artistic (rather than merely aesthetic) dimension. First, when disinterestedness transcended superficial wish fulfilment. Second, when a surprising kind of justice emerged: having started off wanting one thing, I ended up satisfied with something very different.

This year’s Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer was a case in point. I wanted Federer to win. The Swiss tennis player has entertained and moved me more than all other athletes combined. Despite winning the first set, Federer was mostly outplayed for three and a half sets. Djokovic – six years younger – was sharper, quicker and more resilient. Then, against the run of play, Federer won five unanswered games to take the fourth set. All square, with one set to play.

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Federer had to dig deeper than he wanted in order to draw on remote and uncomfortable parts of his pugilistic DNA. And all just to make a match of it! Why, aged 32, a father of four children, was he doing this – pushing himself beyond rational limits? Competitiveness is only part of it. He felt the need to turn the match into an occasion. He owed something special to the crowd, or to the stage – the court where he had won seven titles. He seemed only loosely in control of his remarkable tennis: something deeper had taken over. A high-quality match turned into a more emotionally wrought occasion. Federer’s 18th grand slam was suddenly a possibility.

Except I no longer wanted it. I’d stopped wanting any result at all; I could no longer attach myself to a partisan interest. As the tide turned against Djokovic, I felt things more from his perspective. Here he stood on his sport’s grandest stage, the pre-eminent player in the world, aged 27 and at the top of his game, outplaying the greatest player in history – and yet the sporting world was almost united in wanting him to fail. A superlative competitor, intelligent, articulate and often funny, Djokovic is guilty of one simple crime in the popular imagination: he is not Federer. Nor can he become him, no matter how much polish he acquires.

For all my Federerphilia, I never wavered in my conviction that Djokovic was the better player on the day. To my surprise, I found that the desire for “justice” was stronger than my shallower wish for a fairy-tale ending. It seemed right that Djokovic won. And, when he did, the match took on a more satisfying artistic shape than the narrative arc I’d expected to want. One part of me – the fan – thrilled to Federer’s comeback, while another – the disinterested viewer – saw the shape of the contest as a whole. Crucially, the two experiences co­existed in contrast, but not in opposition.

In 2005, when England won the Ashes for the first time in 18 years, sport once more inhabited the space more often occupied by the arts. The series went to the final day with one last heroic performance required. There were several candidates. The understated Andrew Strauss had scored more hundreds in the series than anyone but he’d run his race in the first innings. The captain, Michael Vaughan, a shrewd, calming presence throughout, steadied the innings before succumbing for 45. Andrew Flintoff, the summer’s overall hero, managed only eight. A final conjuring trick by Shane Warne suddenly seemed irresistibly likely.

Any of these men would have been a fitting hero. Yet there was one player on the pitch whose faith in his own destiny was even stronger. Life had been a rehearsal for this moment. I hate the cliché that victory follows who “wants it the most” but sometimes it is unavoidable. In playing one of the remarkable innings of modern times, Kevin Pietersen confirmed what he had always known but we had not: he did not merely want or seek greatness, it was a necessity. Morally, others had a better claim to own the final day but the story felt truer with Pietersen, uncomfortably brash and un-English, delivering England’s triumph. Few would have nominated him as the appropriate hero. That was part of the day’s magic.

Pietersen now stands exiled and remote. I hope, one day, he will realise that for a sportsman to touch the arts is even rarer than reaching the record books. 

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune” (Bloomsbury, £8.99)