Leo Messi and Roger Federer – Two of the greatest living sportsmen. Lucky? Talented?…… Genius?

Sporting Genius – Does It Exist?

A daft problem has brought me to a greater (and probably unresolvable) argument. Despite Roger Federer’s record in grand slam finals vs. Novak Djokovic of Played 3, Lost 3, I am no closer to admitting that Djokovic is a genius, nor that Federer may not be one. With every tournament that goes by, it seems logical that Djokovic at his highest level is greater than Federer was at his. The stats certainly back up the Serb. The obvious problem lies in the fact that my idea of ‘genius’ is separate from my acknowledgment of success.  Is it therefore right that I base the idea of ‘genius’ as unique and unconnected from the reality of actual results and statistics?

In football terms Leo Messi is a genius and Ronaldo isn’t quite. I’m not saying Ronaldo is a worse player but just that he’s the lesser genius. Despite his fantastic ability, Ronaldo’s success has come from tangible and physical attributes (e.g. strength and speed) and not mystery (a key component of my genius definition.) 

In golf, the same can be said of Seve Ballesteros and Nick Faldo. Ballesteros a greater genius, but perhaps not the superior golfer. Ballesteros’ ability makes you think, “how could he possibly do that?” Whilst Faldo leaves you listing the ways in which he was better than his rivals. It seems harsh, but transparency isn’t part of the notion of genius. Faldo won one more major, but Ballesteros produced more wonder.

Seve Ballesteros – “Golf’s charismatic genius” or just a talented and fortunate sportsman?

‘Genius’. What does it actually mean? I feel it’s an idea generated from, but subtly different from, a combination of inter-linked principles. Mystery, talent, skill, and originality, performed with naturalness and style that inspire wonder. But is the usage of the concept accurate in the sporting world? How does it compare with other arts, music, and other specialities?


The mystery factor is the axis around which all principles of genius develop. A genius performs acts which can’t be accurately defined by what they’ve learned and experienced; it isn’t a by-product of studied knowledge or  technical expertise. Genius cannot be found in textbooks, but by ripping them up and starting afresh, independent of others.


Question: Are genius and talent divided or  are they in a sequence (with talent being the primary stage and genius the secondary, ultimate talent)? I take the first opinion, basing it on that not all outstanding talents are geniuses but every genius is outstandingly talented. An American football quarterback shows talent if their passes hit players others cannot reach, but a genius will throw passes that hit targets others cannot even see. 

Usain Bolt stands alone. A genius without any real competition?
Usain Bolt stands alone. A genius without real competition?


Skill alone does not equate to genius, however a display of genius cannot be exhibited without tremendous skill. The focal point of the Barcelona team that’s dominated world football in recent years has been Xavi. The definitive player of his era, he is immensely skilful and technical but probably the star least blessed with genius.


Whilst expressions of genius are often unexpected (and despite originality being included in the genius makeup), originality does not necessitate genius. The ‘Fosbury Flop’ used in the high jump does not make its creator Dick Fosbury a genius, nor a better athlete or genius than say, Jesse Owens or Usain Bolt.

The disciplines of music, literature, art, etc. are constantly evolving which allows for genius to adapt and thrive more easily than in sport where a sportsman is confined by the nature of their discipline. However I think there are occasions where sport can reach the same elite level as the arts. Those who posses genius in sport have careers that list moments of inspiration as high in comparison to the conventional ones.

The sporting world can produce occasions when one is left not only with the sensations of excitement and admiration, but also harmony. These may be rare but the experience somehow feels complete, like changing even one element would lessen the actual occurrence. I’m not a religious person, but there have been moments where sports has felt almost divinely scripted and perfect. In the times when talent, skill, work ethic, and self belief have been exhausted – that is where genius takes over.

Muhammed Ali aka “The Greatest” – Sporting genius or just supreme athlete?