In 1960s West Coast America there was a group of New Age thinkers who thought they could create a superhuman sports star through a heady brew of meditation, yoga and nude-hot tub bathing. They were part of a movement which inadvertently ended up inspiring Cold War killers and the Star Wars movie franchise. The Jedi were real. In The Men on Magic Carpets Ed Hawkins sets out on a quest to find out what happened.
In this guest post Ed Hawkins explores why he became fascinated with the search for the superhuman sports star.
Most sports fans will ponder – probably obsess – how and why teams win or lose. Usually their own beloved. Usually when they’re supposed to be doing something else, like working. It is not advised that when someone pipes up with a question in that important conference call to respond: “Switch to a 5-3-2 and hit the wide areas early”. But I think about it, too. All the time.
In football, it might be a short wondering. In this era of financial doping (cue Manchester City brethren outrage) the team that spends the most money wins the most matches. Or you might go down the analyst’s rabbit hole and become discombobulated by goal expectancy, possession percentages and the like.
Cricket – blessed relief – remains relatively untouched by the grubbied hands of the monied men. The franchise leagues which have sprung up over the last year may offend the purist but, by and large, they are all bound by wage structures. Instead one can pore over toss bias, expected averages, expected economy rates and expected strike rates.
Many will have sat in front of a laptop, barely noticing the hours ticking by, trying (hoping) to make the matrix reveal itself. And that’s without getting started on percentage gains, sleep coaches, nutritionists.
One day, though, I thought a different thought: what if a team, desperate to win, had attempted to harness something otherworldly? Something really crazy to inspire their players – to inhibit the opposition and breach that fine line between success and failure? Wouldn’t that be, literally, mind-blowing?
As it turned out, it had been tried. An illusionist known as Romark (real name Ronald Markham) had been employed by Halifax Town, a nondescript soccer team in an economically broken part of northern England, to hypnotise their players to help them beat Manchester City in an FA Cup match in 1980.
This was real David versus Goliath stuff. John Smith, the Halifax striker, said at the time: ‘I’m sat there with this guy called Romark, and he was saying, “You will go to sleep now, John Smith, and then you’ll overcome the power of Manchester City. You will play the greatest game of your life.” I’m thinking, “What’s all this about? What a load of nonsense.”‘ But John Smith, in mud up to his knees, helped set up Halifax’s winning goal.
Surely a glittering career would follow for the mysterious Romark? Not quite. His next trick to prove his paranormal powers was to drive a car blindfolded through the streets of Ilford, in Essex. After a few yards he crashed into the back of a police van.
“That van was parked in a place that logic told me it wouldn’t be,” he said.
Something else Romark didn’t see coming was the fraud squad. He was imprisoned for embezzlement. He died in 1982.
I was undeterred. In fact, I was inspired. Here was somebody who had tried to use psychic powers to influence sports games. That was crazy enough for me.
What followed was a three-year descent down another rabbit hole. I ended up on the West Coast of America talking to New Age thinkers who, back in the Sixties, created a school for teaching superpowers to athletes and coaches. These seers believed in a race of gnostic beings who could slow down time, change shape, move balls with the power of their mind, levitate, and make themselves invisible. Basically, any sort of superpower you read about in the comic books, they thought they could do it. Handy to have someone like that on your squad, eh, in the race for the Premier League title?
These hippies had influence. The US Military, paranoid that their Soviet enemies were using such skills to win the Cold War, had to act. They co-opted the yogis, gurus and mystics to help them set up programmes of their own, like the Jedi Warrior Programme, The Stargate Project or, most well know, the First Earth Battalion – inspiration for the movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Once the Cold War was over, though, the hippies returned to their search for the superhuman sports star. Who they inspired and how is quite a tale. And it’s far more interesting than percentage gains, algorithms or splurging the cash. And perhaps more controversial than any belief that you can create a superhero in shorts.
That’s because the true way to find an edge is to love one another. To make athletes the best individuals they can possibly be. To recognise them as human beings instead of commodities which can line the pockets of international conglomerates or boost the profiles of dubious states with poor human rights records. In a sporting era where teams must win at all costs and to hell with the consequences, there are a small numbers of coaches who are swimming against that macho tide. Maybe you can win another way. Think about that.
The Men on Magic Carpets: Searching for the Superhuman Sports Star by Ed Hawkins is available now from www.bloomsbury.com