Beyoncé, Bolt And The Big Bang

Inspiration27 February 2019

SO WHAT EXACTLY IS IT THAT MAKES A GENUINELY GREAT PERFORMANCE? SOMETIMES, THE ANSWER IS SIMPLE AND WE CAN JUST MEASURE AN ACHIEVEMENT: THINK OF USAIN BOLT SMASHING A WORLD RECORD OR CHARLES LINDBERGH CROSSING THE ATLANTIC OCEAN IN A PLANE FOR THE FIRST TIME. WHEN IT COMES TO THE NATURAL WORLD, IT’S OFTEN SOMETHING THAT HAS EVOLVED TO NEAR-PERFECTION – A HUMMINGBIRD’S SUPER-FAST WINGS, THE MEXICAN TETRA FISH’S REMARKABLE ABILITY TO HEAL ITS OWN HEART, OR PERHAPS A RANDOM PHENOMENON LIKE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS.

But for the most part, a truly great performance is entirely subjective and shrouded in an elusive x-factor. What was the unrecognisable quality that made Martin Luther King’s speeches resonate, or Pelé’s football and Robert De Niro’s acting entertain more than others? It isn’t easy to grasp. Great performers make their achievements look effortless when behind that calm exterior lie decades of blood, sweat and tears, shed in order to become the greatest. So here are the heroes – from heavyweights to mites, escapologists to cosmonauts – who have done it better than anyone else...

#27 BEYONCÉ AT COACHELLA
Coachella 2018, America’s answer to Glastonbury, saw Beyoncé take to the stage accompanied by a full marching band and orchestra, and tear straight into Crazy In Love. It set the tone for the defining gig of the 21st century so far: a relentlessly surprising female empowerment juggernaut from the boldest entertainer for a generation. With cameos from husband Jay-Z and sister Solange, as well as a Destiny’s Child reunion, a catalogue of songs traversing jazz, pop and gospel, and lavish choreography that included 100 dancers and Beyoncé dressed as Egyptian queen Nefertiti, it rivalled the showmanship of Queen at Live Aid and the cultural impact of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Oh,and it virtually broke the internet as the most-streamed musical performance ever.

#26 HOUDINI’S ESCAPOLOGY
At the turn of the last century, in a pre-TV and digital age, it took something special to become internationally famous. Harry Houdini’s genius was so captivating that his name became known across the world. He wriggled out of Scotland Yard’s best handcuffs, escaped a Siberian prison van, and wrestled free from straitjackets whilst hanging upside down. Increasingly elaborate constructions were devised to contain him: packing crates, riveted boilers, beer barrels, a Chinese water torture cell… he was even buried alive! The constant risk of death brought in the crowds, but he continued to evade the Grim Reaper, and his name lives on as a byword for trickery.

#25 THE ALL BLACKS PERFORM THE HAKA
Kapa o Pango, aue hī, hā! New Zealand’s rugby union players are already pretty terrifying – they’re the most successful side in the history of the sport after all – but their eye-popping, tongue-wiggling, thigh-slapping, muscle-flexing pre-match routine – a tradition of the Maori people – ramps up the invincible mystique several notches.

#24 THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
One of Earth’s most mesmerising sights is the night sky morphing into bizarre shades of pale green, subtle pink and (on rarer occasions) red or blue. It’s no wonder that in some ancient myths this was seen as a harbinger of war: surely this dizzying phenomenon announces the coming apocalypse! Not quite: the Aurora Borealis (or Aurora Australis in the southern hemisphere) are in fact the result of gaseous particles from our atmosphere colliding with those originally released by the Sun. Clouds, streamers and arcs of luminous light paint across a black palette, and are best enjoyed in Canada, Iceland, Norway and Siberia. It’s thought that activity peaks every 11 years; the next hotspot is scheduled for around 2024.

#23 BRAZIL DISMANTLE ITALY IN THE 1970 WORLD CUP FINAL
There have been many sublime football sides over the decades: the pioneering Hungary outfits of the 1950s; England in 1966; Johan Cruyff’s Holland; Maradona almost single-handedly winning the World Cup in 1986; the Lionel Messi-powered Barcelona of the past decade... But purists constantly return to Brazil’s near-mythical 1970 vintage when it comes to identifying the greatest of all time: the Selecao at the Mexico World Cup were a purring yellow machine, the purest incarnation of the joga bonito (beautiful game) mentality. Pelé was the muse for this team of artists, and the 4-1 thrashing of a very good Italy in the final was their Sistine Chapel. The fourth goal in particular, scored by Carlos Alberto, was an almost casual piece of utter genius.

#22 DUNG BEETLE
The dung beetle gets a pretty bad press – having the word dung in your species description is a humiliating starting point – but it’s time that these superb scarabaeoidea got a little more respect. OK, so they feed on owl faeces, but they’re also the strongest animal on the globe by size-to-weight ratio: they can bury dung more than 250 times heavier than themselves and carry 50 times their body weight at a time. That’s the equivalent of 120kg actor The Rock bench-pressing a limousine! They’re pretty smart creatures, too: they roll their dinner into round, portable units, and navigate using the stars as a guide.

#21 THE MIGHTY MITE
Paratarsotomus macropalpis – a type of mite found in southern California – is by far the fastest animal in existence relative to its body length. While a cheetah can hit a top speed of about 64mph, this skittering arthropod measuring just 0.7mm long, can hotfoot it at breakneck speed – the equivalent of a human scuttling at 1,300mph. That’s like Mo Farah running the 10,000 metres in 1.7 seconds!

#20 TERENCE TAO
An IQ of more than 145 will put you in genius territory, but Australian-American mathematician Terence Tao has the highest ever recorded – at 228 – making him the Usain Bolt of brainpower. The 43 year old has made numerous important breakthroughs in mathematics.

#19 THE SOLAR-POWERED SLUG
The sea slug elysia chlorotica has the equivalent of solar panels in its skin. The ingenious mollusc draws raw materials from algae to give it energy, meaning it behaves more like a plant than an animal. The implications could be remarkable. Slug-powered cities, anyone?

#18 LAND SPEED RECORD (IN 1898)
It seems laughable today, but 121 years ago, getting up to a velocity that would merit a city-centre speeding fine was a massive engineering feat. The bar was set by French racing driver Gaston de Chassaloup-Laubat in a chain-driven Jeantaud electric car that topped out at 39mph.

#17 DE NIRO’S RAGING BULL
Having discovered the incredible back story of boxer Jake LaMotta, actor Robert De Niro persuaded Martin Scorsese to direct a movie and threw himself into the role. He got to know LaMotta and his family, trained with him, and even had some fights at middleweight – winning two. Filming was even paused for several weeks so the actor could binge eat, gaining nearly 30kg to play LaMotta in later life. The result: a classic that won two Oscars.

#16 ZEPHYR SKATEBOARD TEAM
The Z-Boys – a ragtag group of rebels from Southside Santa Monica – became the unlikely godfathers of an entire street culture. Growing up in the run-down Dogtown neighbourhood, they surfed a dangerous beach called The Cove during the morning, before skateboarding for the rest of the day. They would sneak into drained swimming pools and, in 1977, Tony Alva cleared an edge and landed back in the pool for the first time, performing skateboarding’s original aerial. This was Year Zero for the sport, which until then had been more like gymnastics on a board. The Zephyr team gave it an aggressive, free-thinking glamour that spooked parents and delighted teens everywhere.

#15 JOE FRAZIER BEATS MUHAMMAD ALI IN THE ‘FIGHT OF THE CENTURY’
When a boxing match is still referred to as simply ‘The Fight’, you know it was a proper rumble. Two undefeated behemoths – Smokin’ Joe Frazier and The Greatest – met at Madison Square Garden in 1971. It was billed as conservative America against a motor-mouthed left winger; a bruiser against an artist. Frazier won after 15 scintillating rounds.

#14 LINDBERGH FLIES ACROSS THE ATLANTIC
In May 1927, Charles Lindbergh completed the first flight across the Atlantic Ocean, from New York to Paris. That made him the most famous man in America as four million people turned out for a ticker tape parade on his return.

#13 MAN ON THE MOON
De Niro may have immersed himself in the part for Raging Bull, but Jim Carrey went one step further in the 1999 biopic of US stand-up comedian Andy Kaufman. He refused to break character for the entire time of filming, saying he was “possessed” by the comedian.

#12 CHRISTIAAN BARNARD PERFORMS OPEN HEART SURGERY
The South African achieved one of the most significant medical milestones in history in 1967: he successfully transplanted a heart from one human to another. The recipient soon died – as did the next 100 patients – but their bravery led to the mastery of a process that would go on to save more than 3,000 lives a year.

#11 MEXICAN TETRA FISH
This is one of the most remarkable creatures to be found in the water. Scientists studying the fish found that it can heal its own heart, regenerating tissue via three different significant genes. The medical implications for humanity are clear.

#10 YURI GAGARIN ORBITS EARTH
Neil Armstrong may have been the first man on the Moon, but the first human to leave Earth was Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. On 12 April, 1961, he spent 108 minutes inside his craft Vostok, completing a little more than one orbit of the planet and reaching a maximum altitude of 203 miles. He died in 1968 while testing a jet fighter.

#9 THE BIG BANG
While we’re on the subject of the Solar System, it would be rude not to credit the event that, without which, there would be no pioneering cosmonauts, skateboarding revolutionaries or muscular dung beetles. The Big Bang explains the existence of the observable universe, and is believed to have occurred 13.8 billion years ago. The universe expanded from a state of high density and temperature, before cooling and allowing the formation of atoms; the building blocks of all life. The Sun formed some 4.6 billion years ago thanks to the gravitational collapse of a huge molecular cloud, with Earth and the other planets being created from the rest of the flattened mass shortly afterwards. Hats off!

#8 BOLT WINS HIS NINTH GOLD MEDAL
Many pundits didn’t fancy Usain Bolt to win when he lined up for the 100m final at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. He hadn’t been on top form that season, but 9.81 blistering seconds later, ‘Lightning Bolt’ cemented his position as probably the greatest athlete of all time, winning the blue riband event at a third consecutive Olympics. He later added the 200m and 4x100m titles to complete a ‘treble treble’ after dominating the events at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, too. Why is he so quick? Hard work, yes, but experts say he is a genetic miracle as his stride is far longer than his opponents’.

#7 LONDON 2012 OPENING CEREMONY
Beijing 2008 had set the bar high when it came to Olympic opening ceremonies – a lavish $100m affair involving 15,000 closely coordinated performers – but London 2012’s curtain raiser matched it. Directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle and featuring James Bond, The Queen and Mr Bean, it was a witty and inspiring tribute to the Best of Britain.

#6 HILLARY AND TENZING CONQUER EVEREST
Some thought Everest could never be climbed, and eight failed expeditions before this looked like proving the naysayers correct. The 1953 British bid was under pressure because French and Swiss teams had been granted permission to attempt ascents in subsequent years. The first pair on the team, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans, got within 100m before turning back, but the second duo – Kiwi Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay – made the summit at 11.30am on 29 May. They took a picture, and buried sweets and a cross before descending. The news reached Britain on the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. 

#5 THE WINGS OF A HUMMINGBIRD
Hummingbirds live at speed: their heart rate can be as high as 1,260 beats per minute, they can fly at nearly 60mph, they almost never stop moving and spend nearly their entire lives in the air. Such a busy schedule demands some serious flapping! The fastest recorded wing rate is 80 beats per second; an average bird manages around 53. How do they do it? By being incredibly light (they have hollow bones), immensely strong (their pectoral muscles account for a quarter of their body weight), having huge hearts and being aerodynamic. They also flap in a figure of eight – similar mechanics to a dragonfly – which allows more strokes.

#4 NADIA COMANECI
When she first looked at the scoreboard after her uneven bars routine at the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games, Comaneci thought she’d been deducted a point, and sighed in disappointment. But the 1.00 didn’t represent a penalty: the board had only three digits, and this was a perfect 10 – the first time the score had ever been notched at the Games. The 14 year old didn’t understand the significance at the time: “I did what I used to do every day in the gym,” she said. Comaneci eventually retired from the sport with a competitive record that looked as if it was impossible to better, but it was that previously elusive moment of perfection (and the six further 10s she notched at those Games!) that will always be remembered.

#3 THE SISTINE CHAPEL
The Florentine hero Michelangelo achieved a ridiculous amount in the 16th century as a pioneering artist and architect, including his sculpture David and the design of St Peter’s Basilica. But the vast, delicate scenes he painted onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – the official residence of the Pope in Vatican City – is considered his, and High Renaissance art’s, greatest masterpiece.

#2 “I HAVE A DREAM”
There have been numerous significant speeches throughout history – from Winston Churchill fighting them on the beaches to JFK declaring: “Ich bin ein Berliner”. But few had more emotional resonance or historical impact than Martin Luther King’s moment at the Lincoln Memorial in the summer of 1963. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’,” he said. It was a call to action for the Civil Rights Movement in America – highlighting a society rife with injustice, but pointing to how race relations could startto be transformed.

#1 MURMURATION OF STARLINGS
So astonishing that it is almost impossible to comprehend, viewing this dusk-time aerial stunt from tens of thousands of starlings raises many questions: Why do they do it? How do they not collide with each other? It’s thought the reasons for these performances are multiple: their dance offers safety in numbers, confuses predators, and gives a chance to communicate. Scientists believe that birds have evolved internal rules that avoid collisions.

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