x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sport's search for perfection

It is impossible to define the term 'perfect' in individual or team disciplines, but that doesn't mean that feats of brilliance cannot be achieved by the athletes pursuing them, writes Euan Megson.

The Oakland Athletics' Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, retiring all 27 batters in just 109 pitches.
The Oakland Athletics' Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday, retiring all 27 batters in just 109 pitches.

It is impossible to define the term 'perfect' in individual or team disciplines, but that doesn't mean that feats of brilliance cannot be achieved by the athletes pursuing them, writes Euan Megson. What is perfection? Flick through a dictionary and "excellence or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement" typifies the generic answer. But what about perfection in sport? Is it possible to define perfection in individual pursuits, where success is determined by absolute, empirical definitions? Or in team sports, where one player's superlative effort may not ultimately influence their team's eventual result?

Put simply, the answer is rather complicated. Gymnasts, divers and figure skaters can all accrue a "perfect 10", but those are subjective marks determined by the opinion of judges. The central criteria for true perfection is that it must be undeniable. Take Dallas Braden, the Oakland Athletics pitcher who delivered baseball's much-revered perfect game when he retired all 27 Tampa Bay batters in just 109 pitches on Sunday night. Braden's effort, only the 19th perfect game in Major League Baseball's 134-year history, ensures his place alongside an elite band of players.

In football, or soccer as Braden might dub it, perfection by a single player is impossible. In any given game, not every pass, dribble, tackle or shot will be completed, won or scored. And yet a footballer can achieve a "perfect hat-trick" by notching goals with his right foot, left foot and head, the three traditional methods of scoring. Michael Owen, the Manchester United striker, had one against Wolfsburg, the German side, in this season's Champions League. Team perfection is also elusive: in most professional leagues, it is almost impossible for a team to win every game. It has happened, however, in American football. The Miami Dolphins completed a perfect season in 1972, the only time an NFL team has gone undefeated through the regular and post-season. Arsenal became the English Premier League's "Invincibles" when they went the entire 2002/03 season without loss. Arsene Wenger's men did, however, clock up 12 draws in 38 games hardly perfection if one rigidly sticks to the criteria set by the Dolphins, who played fewer than half the games Arsenal did. Barcelona, the Spanish giants, won every competition they entered last season, but they did not win every game. Even though the club won six trophies, the season was not a perfect sweep for Pep Guardiola's all-conquering Catalans. Therein lies the dilemma. If the final result cannot be bettered, should the team or individual performance be classed as perfect? In reality, it has to be. Sporting perfection should be defined as the precise instant when the hours spent honing skills come together and a universally accepted pinnacle is reached.

Some sports have perfection targets that are easily attainable, others are based on the statistically impossible. Ten pin bowlers regularly achieve the game's perfect score of 300, while a golfer will never shoot a hole-in-one on 18 consecutive holes. Earlier this month, Japan's Ryo Ishikawa came as close as anyone ever has, shooting a 58 - the lowest score ever in a professional golf tournament - in the final round of a Japan Tour event. Although not a snooker rarity, Ronny O'Sullivan's maximum break of 147 in the first round of the 1997 World Championships was perfect for its timing. "The Rocket" took only five minutes and 20 seconds, an average of one shot every nine seconds, to complete a genius sweep. In tennis, Bill Scanlon's 1983 "Golden Set" remains perfect for its uniqueness. The Texan won 24 consecutive points in the second set in a 6-2, 6-0 defeat of Marcos Hocevar at the WCT Gold Coast Classic at Delray Beach. It was the first and only time a full-set whitewash has happened on a professional court.

In cricket, India's Yuvraj Singh's six sixes in one over against England at the 2007 ICC Twenty20 World Cup must also be considered perfect. As should Frankie Dettori's "Magnificent Seven" at Royal Ascot in 1996 when the Italian jockey became the first man to take seven winners past the post on a seven-race card. Yet for every example of unsurpassable perfection, there are other sporting deeds of exemplary performance that arguably teeter on the wrong end of the "definition-of-perfection" knife edge.

With six consecutive World Rally Championship titles, Sebastien Loeb's record in the past half-dozen years is perfect. The Frenchman, however, did not win, or even finish, every rally en route to capturing his world crowns. Decidedly not perfect. Similarly, in 2004, Michael Schumacher won 11 of the Formula One season's first 12 races for Ferrari. The points sealed the German's seventh world championship. But Schumacher did not win every race that year. Again, not perfect, even if the final result was. In sport, perfection is rare. The pursuit of it partly explains why athletes continue to compete and, occasionally, why the attainment of it can be harder to contend with than the achievement itself. Being elevated into the pantheon of a sport's all-time greats on the back of a perfect feat represents a commendable landmark. Ensuring that a sole effort does not render the achiever a one-trick pony, however, represents a more consequential task. Consider Braden's opinion of his historic dismantling of the Rays' batting line-up: "Pretty cool. I don't know what to think about it just yet. There's definitely a select group. I'd like to have a career more than today." Instantly the pitcher found himself split between celebration and the realisation that in reaching a career pinnacle there is only one way to go: down. Usain Bolt, the sprinter, is a notable exception. The Jamaican simply exudes perfection. From smashing the 100m, 200m and 4x100m world records in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to bettering them in last summer's Berlin world championships, Bolt thrives on the expectation that no one, not even he, will better his records. Proving that assertion wrong by going even faster represents his personal route to perfection. Perfection in sport is a complicated conundrum. The efforts of athletes the world over, who strive to attain their individual or collective piece of it, however, guarantee it is one debate that is unlikely to ever be decided. emegson@thenational.ae

Miami dolphins: NFL's perfect season The 1972 Miami Dolphins had it all: a legendary coach in Don Shula, a formidable offensive line and the infamous "No-Name Defence" that dominated opponents. Playing most of the year without Brian Griese, the starting quarterback, who was injured, the Dolphins did what no other American football team has achieved. Shula's side went through the season unbeaten, winning 14 regular season games, two play-off games and Super Bowl VII. Yuvraj Singh: Six times for six On September 19, 2007, Yuvraj hit six sixes in a single over against England's Stuart Broad in an ICC World Twenty20 Super Eight match at Kingsmead in Durban. The 36-run slam had been performed only three times in any form of senior cricket, and never in an international match between two Test playing nations. It was also the first time six straight sixes had been struck in international Twenty20 cricket. Arsenal: 38 matches, no defeats For the first time since Preston in 1888/89, the 2003/04 Arsenal team completed a season in the English top-flight without a loss - 26 wins and 12 draws. The Premier League commissioned a special gold version of its trophy to commemorate Arsenal's "Invincibles". Arsene Wenger's side's run eventually reached 49 league games before coming to an end at Manchester United the following season. Ryo Ishikawa: 58, golf's magic number No one had shot lower than 59 for 18 holes in a pro golf tournament before this month, and an 18-year-old who missed the cut at the Masters seemed an unlikely candidate. But Ishikawa made 12 birdies and six pars in the final round of The Crowns, a Japan Tour event, for a score of 58. "I always dreamed of getting a score like this but didn't think I would do it so fast," he said. "It hasn't really sunk in yet."