Power Becomes Overpowering in Sports
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Strength, size, and youth are big factors in athletic competition. Commentator Frank Deford says not to overlook other qualities, such as skill, grace, and experience.
Mr. FRANK DEFORD (Commentator and Senior Contributing Writer, Sports Illustrated Magazine ): Three disparate names in the news lately, but connected. Michelle Kwan, Doug Flutie, Martina Hingis. You see, each of them are, in their way, remnants of the past who remind us how athletes today are just so much bigger than stronger. Kwan is struggling for a last-gasp Olympic chance, Flutie is retiring, and Hingis is assaying a comeback that has so far has been most successful.
But all three show us that sports is more than ever just power, power, power. Kwan will be tested this weekend to see if she is recovered from injuries sufficient to make our figure skating team in Turin. I hope she passes the test, but we all know it's only a curtain call. She made her mark with grace and style, but the new rules of figure skating emphasize jumps. Higher, higher, higher.
It's always been easy to laugh at figure skating as an ersatz sport, with its hideous sequins, flowers and teddy bears, kiss and cry, not to mention crooked judges. But it was what it was, and it was beautiful. And it was something to be said for it being simply different, even incongruous. Now, I fear it'll just be another jumpfest, and Michelle Kwan, if she makes it, a melodious oldie but goodie competing with the cacophonous top 40.
Doug Flutie was supposed to be too short for a quarterback when he won the Heisman Trophy more than two decades ago. He's still only 5'10'', maybe. And quarterbacks today are too small if they're not the size that linebackers were back when Flutie came into the pros. There's something terribly off-putting in football, now, when you hear a 280-pounder referred to as too small.
But it's the same in most all sports. Baseball scouts don't look for pitchers anymore, just throwers who can hurl lightning bolts past the muscle-bound sluggers. Hockey players are starting to look like basketball players. Good lord, the greatest defenseman ever was Bobby Orr, and he wasn't even six feet tall. A defenseman. Martina Hingis was number one in the world before she was 17. But she was only five-foot-seven, and an old soul who won with guile and elegance.
Michelle Kwan in sneakers. By the time she was an ancient 22, big-hitting power players had driven Hingis from the game. Of course, size and speed have always ruled athletics, but never has power been so, well, overpowering. And in virtually every sport. The sadness is that it makes for sameness. Just get bigger, hit it harder, boom, boom. I think one of the reasons NASCAR continues to gain in popularity is that its drivers are normal-size people that fans can relate to better than the behemoths that walk the arenas today.
Trumping strength with cunning and cute stuff always made sport more interesting. Going right back to that championship game in the Valley of Ela, when a big guy named Goliath got cocky against the Doug Flutie of his day, and got himself smote.
MONTAGNE: The comments of Frank Deford, senior contributing writer at Sports Illustrated. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.