Finesse Over Physique

AMERICA is one of the most sports-crazy cultures in the world, and this season is one of the nation's most sports-intensive periods - with the drums and fife of college marching bands reverberating through the crisp autumn air. During one magical week in late October the major pro sports - basketball, football, baseball, and hockey - overlap like some celestial event. Sports and sports heroes set a tone for popular American culture. We use sports metaphors in the business and politics of our daily lives.

That's why it's useful to remember that the genius of sports is not in brute strength or the muscle of youth, but in the intelligence and grace, technique and timing, heart and soul of the athlete who demonstrates mastery in his or her sport. It's not in steroids. It's in the intangibles. The best football team is not the one that bench presses the greatest weight. Good athletes, in fact, are a dime a dozen. Athletes with character and smarts are not.

The triumph of finesse over force has been demonstrated severalfold this year. Pitcher Nolan Ryan at age 42 leads both leagues in strikeouts. Kareem Abdul Jabbar retired - after 19 years of smart NBA play.

Now Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz, 39, plans a 1992 comeback in the butterfly stroke in Barcelona. His winning time in the '72 Munich games would have placed 8th in Seoul last year, but experience in training that stresses effortless technique and economy of motion will help Spitz cut time.

(US backstroker David Berkhoff wins through an innovative diving technique that keeps him underwater longer to take advantage of smaller body size).

Great athletes - and average people - can get better. Older discus throwers often throw farther. The media may not cover it, but many athletes give their best performances later in life. So do many of us in meeting our own challenges - in and out of sports.

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