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Why we try and fail to find transcendent athletes

The new sports documentary ‘In Search of Greatness’ talks to Wayne Gretzky, Pelé, and Jerry Rice, and rages against the sports machine.

In the words of the director, Gabe Polsky, “In Search of Greatness” is less of a film and “more of a journey.” An expedition to the heart of the “enigmatic nature of greatness, and how it can be cultivated and ultimately defined.”

But Polsky is not really interested in finding an answer to the question of greatness. Instead, he wants to show how our current model for finding greatness in athletes is broken. According to Polsky, greatness lies in individual creativity, not in measurable parameters. When I asked him what qualities were necessary for an athlete to become “great,” Polsky responded:

“See we’re doing it again. You’re trying to put exact labels on it, the way we do it with standardization.”

“In Search of Greatness” consists of interviews with three sporting icons — Wayne Gretzky, Jerry Rice, and Pelé — and two authors — Dave Epstein, author of the “The Sports Gene,” and Sir Ken Robinson, a British expert on education, creativity, and innovation.

For 80 minutes, the three athletes try to explain the secrets to their genius, what made them different and more successful than their contemporaries, and why the world’s obsession with formal training and physical qualities is wrong. Gretzky, Rice, and Pelé, weren’t the fastest or strongest players, and they didn’t have the best training growing up, but they were able to excel because greatness can’t be reduced to those formulas, they argue. Epstein and Robinson chime in throughout the film to add academic support.

Yet as compelling as the subjects are, that unanswered question creates an unspoken tension in the film. “What is right, then?” is the natural follow-up to someone saying that something is wrong, and the film only provides half answers like “creativity” and “seeing the game differently,” suggesting that greatness is something innate in certain humans that can’t be measured or manufactured.

This innate special quality apparently manifested itself in individual quirks for Gretzky, Rice, and Pelé.

As a child, Gretzky would draw the outline of a hockey rink on paper, and then follow the movement of the puck with a pen as he watched games so that he could see where in the rink the puck spent the most time. Rice used to toss a football in the air and practice catching it in the dark. Pelé spent most of his time playing soccer in the street, rather than on the beach with the more formally trained players.

The strongest answer in the film to the question of what makes greatness is that great athletes spend a lot of time playing in unstructured environments. This idea of play as a form of training helps athletes develop in a way that their formally trained peers don’t. Epstein referenced a study on the 2014 World Cup winning German national team (evidently a study by Manuel Hornig, Friedhelm Aust and Arne Güllich from December 2014) to prove this point:

“There’s a great study recently out on the German soccer team that just won the World Cup, looking at the development path of the guys who made the national team and the guys who were one rung below that. And the only big difference that they could come up with was that the guys who made the national team had a lot more time in unstructured small-sided play when they were young ... and continued with more unstructured play into pros.”

The film’s anti-standardization stance isn’t wrong. There are countless other studies that support the idea that unstructured play for children fosters creativity. A 2013 study in the “International Journal for Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education” found that kids in unstructured situations were more daring and creative but when parents were present, “the behavior of the children took on more expected and less imaginative traits.” And a study in 2009 supported the idea that unstructured play was instrumental in the development of professional soccer players.

In sports, we are often too fixated on visceral and physical qualities rather than genius and artistry. But the film also has a problem: The three athletes explain that playing outside of the norms of their times was a critical reason for their greatness, but none acknowledges that their greatness needed a standard to oppose.

Those standards that they loathe, by merely existing, created space for their oppositional force. Gretzky was special, and was allowed the freedom to express his creativity because he was different from everyone else. If everyone else had been like Gretzky, there would have been no Gretzky.

The athletes also skirt the fact that they helped write the modern standards, though they did so inadvertently. Gretzky, Rice, and Pelé may have been iconoclasts, but after their eras, generations of athletes have been burdened by their examples. After Pelé, there was, and still is, a search for the new Pelé. The same happened with Gretzky, Rice, Michael Jordan, Diego Maradona, and so on.

And standards, as long as they’re not dogmatic, serve a purpose. Because greatness is usually opposed to the day’s standards, the world can’t help being a step behind. But standards define a baseline of good and serviceable players. They elevate the current field of talent. They help many others, even if they don’t help the greats.

My biggest problem with the film was with the idea of fate. At the end of the film, Gretzky explains that luck plays a huge factor in greatness, too:

“I got lucky the era I played in. I got lucky the style that I was playing in, and I got really lucky with the coaching that I had, and more importantly, the players I played with. All that combined to be a perfect storm. As simple as that.”

But when the off-camera interviewers ask him, “... Do you think that if you’re destined to be great, you’re going be great?” Gretzky answers, “You’re gonna be great. You’re gonna find a way to make it happen.”

This idea of fate, that great athletes are destined and will always find a way to be great, is counter to everything that the film had explored. That hatred of standards pivoted on how they prevented potentially great athletes from surfacing. Right before Gretzky’s answer, Robinson, says:

“People have immense deep talents that are often overlooked by the systems that are designed to educate them or to take care of them. It’s like, there’s natural resources that’s much deeper than we realize. There’s multifarious factors on whether or not people achieve what they achieve, when they achieve them. And the ones we know about, are the ones whose talents came to fruition because the conditions prove to be favorable to them. But how many other people could achieve similar things if the conditions were right?”

The film contains a contradiction that is all-too natural in conversations about greatness. The myth of the destined genius, of the special individual with an almost divine quality, can’t exist in a world that admits that luck matters — that there are many special individuals all over the world who work hard and do everything right, but who are just not as lucky as the ones who succeed.

That unluckiness can take many forms, but often comes in financial and social constraints that limit an individual’s opportunities to expose their talent to the right people. Even when an athlete reaches the professional ranks, they need luck to land in the right situation for their particular talents to flourish. Draymond Green was seen as an undersized, slow, rotation player going into the NBA, but in Steve Kerr’s system, he is pivotal to the best team of this generation.

That’s not to disparage those who became great — as an athlete, you have to have an almost delusional mindset, to believe that you’re the exception of exceptions, in order to put in the amount of work that it takes to be great. But our cultural idea of genius — an idea that “In Search of Greatness” feeds — is so individualistic, that pointing out that genius is highly structural invalidates the stories about the value of hard work that underline our collective identity.

So even in a film in which great athletes illustrate the ways that standards limit athletes, Gretzky, Rice, and Pelé are almost compelled by the end to insist that they were somehow magical. Those at the top will almost always reason that their position was earned by merit and destiny, because those people have always needed to believe that to flourish.

That tension hinders what could have been an illuminating film. As nice as it is to have Gretzky, Rice, and Pelé speak about their careers, if “In Search of Greatness” aims to make a statement against standards, we should hear from those who had the talent, but never the opportunity, to be great. Exceptional athletes can point out the flaws in a system that they transcended, but they will inevitably justify that same system by dismissing it, because it never impeded them. Only those who have been left behind can truly understand how broken the system is.