Any job done well is a pleasure, but sporting achievement distills that pleasure into a kind of beauty. What looks like work to the rest of us is closer to inventive play in the body of a champion sprinter or swimmer. The mechanical action of a thousand hours’ practice gives way to a something theatrical. On their best days, they seem to act entirely without effort; their technique is sheer joy in movement. The cliché here is the young Muhammad Ali, almost floating off the canvas, but you see the same luminous energy in a gymnast like Simone Biles, feeding on the towering difficulty of her own routines.
Like all forms of beauty, you need some idea of what you’re looking at. Once you’ve hit a few rallies on a tennis court, it’s easier to understand Roger Federer as religious experience. To watch him return 100 mph shots as easily as turning the pages of a book is one thing, but when you’ve been knocked back by a serve at half the speed, you start to feel as well as see it. This is why I can watch weightlifting or diving with breathless anticipation, but cricket cannot move me.
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht suggests in his book In Praise of Athletic Beauty that what connects sportspeople and spectators is their capacity to be “lost in intensity.” Even my own amateur feats make it easy to recognize what he means by that commitment to the moment, “a concentrated openness for something unexpected to happen.” Athletes are lost in the game, absorbed into the sheer doing of it. They don’t think before they act; they think by acting. Focus is a way of losing yourself, and so when the soccer player’s shot bends impossibly into the goal, or the high jumper grazes over the bar with nothing to spare, they are sometimes as surprised as us. Gumbrecht’s account is most persuasive, to me, when it captures moments like these. When the athlete is “a body in space, suddenly taking on a beautiful form that just as quickly and irreversibly dissolves.”
Athletic beauty turns violent power into lightness and precision. If it has a formula, it’s that mixture of body and brain: the most physical of public performances, all taut muscle and hot joints, and a species of pure invention, which memory, writing, and even film can scarcely capture. Athletic beauty is a moment where flesh becomes idea.
It’s this double nature that gives sportswear its combination of energy and laidback charm. An aesthetics of capability, but also of ease. From the traditions of team sports, we get some of the best uses of color: hooped rugby shirt, football uniforms, cycling jerseys, club ties and assorted team paraphernalia. From the rough heroics of training we get the hoodie, the athletic sweatshirt, and the much-maligned sweatpants. And from the power of sports to soften even formal clothing, we get the soft tweeds of sport coats, and rich flannel and madras sport shirts. There’s plenty of make-believe in sportswear-as-leisurewear, but there’s also a certain appeal in these things. They have the aura of athletic beauty without the sweaty intensity. We wear them in preparation (real or theatrical) of attaining one or both.