‘Sport is human life in microcosm’
Sport and History have a lot in common. What can Lukas Rosol’s upset over Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon reveal about the way history works?
The writing of history and sportswriting might not appear to share too much at first thought. Historians sit in quiet archives, calmly analysing documents revealing past events and dynamics, thoughtfully arranging them into causative and explanatory patterns, trying to answer how things came to be the way they were. History itself moves quickly, but history-writing is a slow process: not only does it take a long time but historians also prefer to wait until events are quite a bit past to analyse them (a guiding element of this project). Sportswriters on the other hand live and work first-hand, either on-site or watching events as they unfold, instantly having to react to the quick-moving, dramatic, competitive world of sports. Explanations and judgements are more proximate, causation more easily revealed by the fact that sport will, unlike history, always produce clear winners and losers. Sport is considered a pretty crude metaphor for historical events, its black-and-white, A vs B, winner and loser simplicity hardly an accurate reflection of history, the infinite shades of grey.
But historians are missing out on sport (and not just because it is thrillingly, exhilaratingly, gloriously, endlessly fascinating, entertaining and exciting: most academics would prefer a nice book). Sport may produce simple contrasts, inherent confrontations, and simple outcomes, but sportswriting and history-writing do mostly the same thing: they try to explain causes (both proximate and long term), examine patterns, build narratives, build up or tear down or analyse iconic heroes and villains, focus on the micro story or pull back to the wider picture, and above all, explain why a certain thing happened instead of all the other possibilities, to tell a story which answers that most human of questions, “why?”.
At Wimbledon yesterday evening, Lukas Rosol beat Rafael Nadal in five sets on Centre Court. Rosol is ranked 100, whereas Nadal is ranked 2. Rosol has never won a tournament on the ATP Tour; Nadal has won 50. In nine years as a professional Rosol has never been ranked in the world’s top 60; Nadal has spent nearly seven years ranked either 1 or 2. Before Wimbledon began Rosol had won three matches at Grand Slam tournaments in his whole career; Nadal has won 11 Grand Slam titles. Rosol had never before qualified for the 128-man main draw at Wimbledon before this week; Nadal is a two-time Wimbledon champion, the winner of perhaps the greatest match in The Championships’ history (the 2008 Final).
The two men are from different classes of talent and achievement, different worlds of experience, wealth, and fame. Rosol is not a classy veteran hoping for a last hurrah, not a dangerous dark horse who sometimes springs an upset, not a rising talent who impresses the pundits, not an exciting wunderkind, not even a developing young player (he’s nearly a year older than Nadal). To tennis journalists, the fashioners of the sport’s narratives, he is an invisible extra, without even an entry in the ATP Tour’s media guide of player information, not even worthy of the backhanded compliment ‘journeyman’. In the cold-hearted terms of professional sports, he is nothing, nobody.
And he was playing Rafael Nadal, sporting legend, at Wimbledon, on Centre Court. When Nadal won the first set, some time-pressed tennis journalist probably switched attention to another court, or headed to the interview room to hunt out a story. The intelligent analysis was that Nobody was not going to trouble Nadal. Rosol seemed blissfully unaware of the script, and hit some great shots, surprisingly going up two sets to one. But Nadal roared back to take the fourth set 6-2. Twilight was giving way to dusk and the players took a break to allow the roof and lights to be turned on for the final set. All the intelligent analysis predicted Nadal would now win the match, as the intelligent analysis had of course predicted at the start: all the important factors – class, talent, momentum, ability to deal with pressure – favoured Nadal. An entertaining late evening cameo from Nobody, but it was all over. As the players waited for the lights to come on, the sports fan watching on TV might have switched to the Euro 2012 semifinal. The up tight man in Row G might have looked at his watch and said to his wife that maybe now was a good time to beat the rush to the Tube.
Somehow, though, the intelligent analysis was wrong. Rosol didn’t wilt under the Centre Court lights; instead he became utterly possessed. He played the fifth set as if in a trance, thundering 20 winners (5 full games of them) past Nadal. Every time it seemed that he might get nervous, Rosol swiped another winner. By the time Rosol had thundered through the final game with three aces, the word ‘historic’ was filling the mouths and keyboards of tennis journalists. Was this the biggest upset in Wimbledon history? How could something so unusual happen? The shocked analysts agreed that this had no explanation, it defied analysis. Rosol won because…he won. This was a lightning strike, a freak, a black swan.
1.Taleb, Nassim, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (New York, 2007).Black swans are random occurrences, unexplainable and unpredictable.1 Nassim Taleb has argued that The Black Swan is history’s fatal flaw. Only by looking at history in hindsight, with a Platonic desire for narratives and explanations do historians make events look like they follow patterns with underlying causes. A ‘hotel journalism’ of the academic archives, a deluded research programme following hindsight bias, retrospective distortion, and group-thinking ‘clusters’ of thinking and source-selection cause historians to ‘reverse engineer’ history into causative narratives when in reality ‘history does not crawl, it jumps’.2
This is clear because history hides The Black Swan: the most dramatic, radical, important historical events are those which are totally unpredictable, those which defy historians’ attempts to create explanations. Black Swans are not ‘the exception proving the rule’, or distracting blips in historical progress, or dramatic froth over deeper historical waves, they are central to history, the events shouting out that the Emperor has no clothes. Historians can’t accept that the world is more complicated and random than is explainable: “Nobody knows what’s going on”. Others who believe in history’s explanatory power still see the Black Swan as a flaw in the way historians work: Niall Ferguson has commented that historians too often search for underlying linear explanations of events instead of accepting that their proximate triggers can ‘explain the sudden shift from a good equilibrium to a bad mess’.
There is undoubtedly some truth in this. Far too often hindsight bias does indeed make history look more explainable and predictable than it really is. Historians can reverse engineer an explanation for the French Revolution, or the Holocaust, casting them in a long sweep of narrative and cause, but they were still historically unthinkable events, and Taleb (and Karl Popper) would argue that historicising them denies that unthinkability. Good history, though, is not inherently incapable of dealing with Black Swans: exogenous and endogenous, thinkable and unthinkable, predictable and random, can all be integrated into a match report or a historical argument. But Black Swans will always be a historical problem.
Sport has no problem with Black Swans. Nadal was admirably philosophical in his post-match comments. When asked how he could explain such an incredibly unlikely result. Nadal shrugged: ‘That’s sport. You win, you lose.’ Rosol agreed: ‘It’s sport. Nobody’s unbeaten. Everybody can lose and everybody can win’. Unpredictability helps add to sport’s excitement, its drama. In many ways The Black Swan is the most thrilling of all sporting outcomes, either as an unbelievable upset, or as an outcome which somehow totally defies all narrative. Bill Simmons recently wrote about Larry Bird’s final shot in Game 4 of the 1987 NBA Finals:
‘I would have bet anything that the shot was ripping through the net. I would have bet my baseball card collection. I would have bet my Intellivision. I would have bet my virginity. I would have bet my life. Even the Lakers probably thought it was going in. Watch the tape and you will notice Lakers backup Wes Matthews crouched on the floor and screaming behind Bird in sheer, unadulterated terror like he’s about to watch someone get murdered in a horror movie. You will hear the fans emit some sort of strange, one-of-a-kind shrieking noise, a gasping sound loosely translated as, “Holy shit, we are about to witness the greatest basketball shot ever!” Hell, you can freeze the tape on the frame before the ball strikes the rim. It looks like it’s going in. It should have gone in.
It didn’t go in.
…[After the buzzer] my father looked at me.
“That was supposed to go in,” he groaned. “How did that not go in?”
More than twenty-two years have passed since that night … and I still don’t have an answer for him. For everything else, I have answers.’
For the sports writer such moments are part of the glory of sport, the reason every sportsfan in the world will effectively wear a blindfold and ear plugs to avoid the result of a game if he’s going to watch it later: no one knows what’s going to happen. For a historian looking back on a past event where a historical argument says something should have happened, whatever model or argument upon which that assumption rests is obviously flawed. But that difference between future and past uncertainty is the flaw of The Black Swan: perhaps the randomness of the event means we cannot explain why the ball didn’t go in, but we still want answers. In the historian’s gut, The Black Swan’s most extreme criticism of history – ‘nobody knows what’s going on’ – is as heretical as telling a scientist that an unexplained physical phenomenon is a mystery, or the work of angels: a cop-out which responds to the difficulties of history, the challenges of intellect, by throwing one’s hands up and saying “it is written”, “who knows?”.
People yearn to understand why things happen. “Why?” is the most human of all questions, the question, in many ways, which makes us human: historians are adults following the lead of the child who continues to ask “Why?” to every parental answer, unconvinced by a jaded “because”. While The Black Swan Problem is undoubtedly a challenge for history, the fact that we cannot explain the historically unthinkable in an endogenous model, or explain why Bird missed the shot, or how Rosol beat Nadal, is not evidence of history being a random series of ‘one damn thing after another’. It’s evidence that history, like sports, is cast with people, humans – complex, unpredictable, contradictory. A human history is one which does not see The Black Swan as either the abberation outside the narrative or the randomness which shows that narratives are damaging. A human history delights in the challenge of explaining. When asked to explain his performance, Rosol commented that for all the records and results, “it’s always open. It’s sport. Nobody’s unbeaten. Everybody can lose and everybody can win…We’re just people. We’re just humans.” In sport, in history, just people, just humans.