Verstality in Sports- In Context of Olympics
The great in any sport are great because they are in masterful control of their art and versatile as well in the subtle variations as and when needed. Most Olympic events by and large are dominated by specialists- as every medal that is up for grabs usually demands total commitment for a decade or two. To be hopeful for a medal, I guess athletes have to focus on a specific event- be it a sprint, throw, jump etc.
However events such as gymnastics (all-round), decathalon, triathalon, and swimming medley are a few individual events- which test how versatile an athelte is, beyond just pushing one parameter to its limits- such as power, speed, flexibility etc as is the case in many other events.
In many other sports, such as cricket or tennis- being versatile is largely dependent on the playing surface and conditions. In cue-sports, the ball momentum/spin and contact principles follows the same laws of physics, it would mean that players are likely to play more than one format very well. However, playing well and succeeding are two different issues. Steve Davis was a legend at snooker, played Billiards well and also gave nightmares to 9-ball legends like Reyes and Strickland.
In Chess, there have been all kinds of players- strategic, tactical, sharp postional across various different openings. There has been a lack of experimentation with opening play at GM level, largely because computers have maxed out options for certain lines of play. But just playing 1 e4 or 1 d4 can be a comfort issue for even the best in the world! No matter how routine some openings tend to be, to be able to excel at the top, versatility is key- and this is perhaps where Kasparov had the edge over the very best in his time.
Then in the modern day there is huge pressure to compress matches in shorter formats. This has happened in cricket and chess, where different aspects of scoring and tactical skills are tested out . Again, only the versatile are likely to succeed.
It must be noted that the greatest sportspersons have often not succeeded in every variant or different style of play. For instance, Borg, McEnroe, Sampras or Federor have not won all grand slams events, on account of different style of play on different surfaces. In cricket, playing in India, England and Australia are so very different, that the same bloke who dominates in certain pitches, may be simply out of sorts elsewhere.
However, the fact is that great players- will yet be above par when tested in conditions which demand playing out of their comfort zone. The same list of tennis players mentioned above were versatile enough to be amogst the top few players on surfaces they do not like, even if they did not win on that surface.
Since being versatile involves blending skills in different ways, we can therefore try to define or explain it in more ways than one. Are you a master of few and good in other skills? (Michael Phelps is an Ace in freestyle and butterfly, and also excels in the other two strokes) Or are you above par in each different department (not Jack of all trades, but perhaps a Queen or King). This will largely depend on the individual and the sport.
Coming to the Olympics, I am always amazed by what the Decathletes have to undergo. Sprint 100m, 1500m laps, run with a javelin and lift a shot put as well, high jump and long jump demand different flexibility… Each of these 10 events demands a different body weight and height, not to mention the seemingly conflicting muscular activity. Surely, a decathlete may not be able to win an individual medal in any of the 10 events, because to succeed as a decathlete you perhaps need to be able to carry a body which is sort of in the middle.
In gymnastics and swimming- you will usually find that the great athletes, being versatile, usually win many medals in one competition, as they can win the all-round events and excel at a few individual routines as well- since their body structure will at least permit it. This however does not mean what Phelps achieved is not super-special (the medals won were all gold and he broke the world records as well).
It would indeed by an interesting subject to explore the type of skills and preparation required by sports persons to be versatile- across the world of sport- and be able to compare the scope of what can be achieved.
Surely, it needs to be addressed in my concepts of Universal Sports Expression and inventing cross-variants in the future.
Perhaps decathletes may be versatile enough to teach us the nuances of conflicting skills.
19 August 08, Mumbai