“I felt like putting a bullet through the eyes of every panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species. I wanted to open the dump valves on all those oil tankers and smother those French beaches I’d never see. I wanted to breathe smoke. I felt like destroying something beautiful.”
The thing about destroying beauty is that you need to recognise it. In many ways, you need to embody it. This is maybe what makes Alex Ladomatos the most transcendental athlete of our generation. His ability to encompass the duality of not just our sport, but of our existence. To force us to recognise beauty in the same moment that it is extinguished.
“Is frisbee beautiful?,” my friend Gus Macdonald asked me the other day. Yes, I answered, frisbee is beautiful. Every sport is beautiful and anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t really watching.
But sport is also an inherently human endeavour and so that beauty also inevitably crashes headlong into the messiness of humanity.
Alex Ladomatos is doesn’t just understand this collision; he is this collision.
I think about artificial intelligence quite a lot. I worry about the forces guiding its development. I wonder how close we are to creating intelligence that puts me, and the rest of the world, out of a job. I try to ignore that looming feeling that we are living through the last bit of history of defined by human action.
And then I see Alex Ladomatos throw an around backhand and I have faith that the robots will never fucking get us.
Do you know the difference between an android and a cyborg? An android is a robot that is made to look like a human. A cyborg is a human that has been modified with robotic parts to extend/improve what it can do.
I used to describe Lado as a frisbee playing robot, aka an android. This was because, unlike most of us, he learns from his mistakes. Lado takes a deliberate course of action. He observes the result. He computes the data. He modifies his course of action. And then, sometime between 5 minutes and 5 years later, you suddenly cannot get open or he does something which you cannot stop no matter how hard you try.
Can you see why I worry about AI?
I used to describe Lado as a frisbee playing robot. But I was wrong. Lado is not, in fact, a robot. Robots can complete complex tasks and, with machine learning, get better at them over time. But they still suck at managing two things - complexity and finesse.
A great example is picking fruit. It is so easy for us to walk up to a tree, see an apple, check it’s ripe, and apply enough force to grab it off the tree without smooshing it. And yet, that same task is still almost impossible for robots - imagine trying to tell the difference between green trees and green apples, especially if there are shadows being cast by trees. Or, if you’ve ever played one of those skill-testing claw games in the arcade, imagine trying to get one of those apples out of the machine while keeping it blemish-free. How does the robot even get to the tree in the first place? You’re dreaming.
So yes, Lado’s around backhands seem perfect and endlessly repeatable, like a robot’s. His ability to convert electrical signals in his brain into human movement is so direct that it evokes a machine-like efficiency. And he still learns, adapts and perseveres like the Terminator.
But those around backhands, the cuts, the guarding. These things are not robotic. They’re beautiful. They’re smooth. They adapt effortlessly to the conditions, the setting, the receiver, the defense.
Moreso, they can also be ugly but to borrow a phrase from Picnic bars, deliciously ugly. They do the fucking job. They bring a wry smile to the face of anyone who knows just how difficult it is to deliberately do something that is both incredibly effective and unwieldy at the same time. This should be a paradox, but in the hands of Alex Ladomatos, it’s not.
I used to describe Lado as a frisbee playing robot. But I was wrong. Put simply, Alex Ladomatos is a cyborg with no mechanical parts. The machines don’t stand a chance.
Postmodernism requires modernism to exist. Modern economics is based on principles from classical economics. Barry Trotter cannot exist without Harry Potter.
These things are rejections of the things that came before them. But they require a deep, nuanced, masterful knowledge of the thing that they reject. You have to know the basics to unlearn them.
Alex Ladomatos, if required, can play frisbee that is more boring than a million Fyshwicks. If the defense allows it, Lado would be perfectly happy to march the disc up the field, throwing between 4 and 14 sensible passes of varying distances and shapes. He can cut 45 degrees up the line, provide a fill that angles away from the dump, throw a perfectly weighted around pass, continue the swing down the breakside, centre the disc again, huck it from power position, and so on and so on.
All of this stuff is, objectively, “good”. But I would not say that it’s beautiful.
Sure, Federer can hit a backhand that makes you question the basic laws of physics. Yes, the simple mechanics of a Tayla Harris kick make you audibly gasp. But it’s how they do this in response to a million ever-changing human factors that makes what they do transcendental.
So it is with Lado, operating in a world of mere mortals. Like water rushing downstream, Lado meets reality as it is in each moment. He moves fluidly and with force to bend the world around him to his will. Each movement contains the weight of every past experience, while retaining the lightness of spontaneous action.
He is a force of nature. But maybe more forest fire than forest stream...
Lado has absolutely no allegiance to a single way of doing things. There is no dogma, no “back in my day”, no my way or the highway. It’s about what works.
And maybe this is where the brutality comes in. Because Lado wants to beat you. And he will do what it takes to make that happen.
Defensively, it means finding that thing that you’ve been working on all season, the one you’ve spent countless hours building and nurturing, and snuffing it out. You know that moment when the little pigs find out their house wasn’t quite as secure from the wolf as they thought it was? Yeah, that’s happening to you. He’s taking one look at your house and telling some horde of impressionable and athletic youngsters how exactly to break it.
Offensively, it means watching you do everything right, watching you execute a defensive strategy perfectly, watching you take away option and after option....and then throwing something that works anyway. Probably an ugly throw that gets there. Something that you tell your team, “oh, they won’t be able to throw that all game” or “oh, it was a lucky break” or “oh, they’re doing exactly what we want them to do”.
But also the kind of throw that, after the second or third time it’s happened, makes you break out in a cold sweat.
In those moments, Lado’s throws are the kind that lead to an existential crisis. How is he doing that? Why is this happening? Why am I here?
There are a few throwers in Australia who can have this effect on people. But no-one who can do it so consistently, from any spot on the field, at any time of the game. It would be beautiful if you weren’t on the other side of it.
I could go on. And very briefly, I will.
Every frisbee player has something to love about their game. It might be a skill - a particular throw, layouts, some footwork. It might be a trait - a tenaciousness, an attitude, a style.
To watch Lado play is to admire the game itself. To see the highs and lows, the beauty and brutality, to witness the infinite complexity of a group of humans attempting to move plastic forwards, while another group attempts to stop them.
And just like our beautiful and brutal game, it's an ongoing project. Ultimate is getting better. And Lado is getting better with it. Every day. Every hour. Every minute.
You better keep practicing.
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