Why We Love Our Wunderkinds

Max Verstappen is certainly a name to watch... he will become the youngest driver in Formula One history... the achievement of Verstappen and others becomes a triumph of relativity, a story of ability overcoming experience, of talent trumping practice, of nature defeating nurture.

Max Verstappen is certainly a name to watch. The Formula Three racing driver, 16, has seen countless newspaper inches devoted to him around the world over the past week, following the announcement that he will become the youngest driver in Formula One history when he takes his seat with Toro Rosso at the inception of the 2015 season. Still over a year too young to be eligible to drive around the roads of his native Netherlands, Verstappen has captured the attention of the racing media during its mid-season break.

The Dutchman is the latest in a long line of sportspeople, musicians, mathematicians and painters to be posted as the next prodigy of their art by the popular media. From programmes such as Channel 4's 'Child Genius' - charting a select band of Britain's brightest seven to twelve-year-olds as they compete against one another in a series of gruelling quizzes and memory games - to the wax lyrical reporting of budding aquatic stars such as Tom Daley and Ellie Simmonds, youth itself seems to be regarded as a qualification for national or even worldwide interest.

Why the disproportionate interest? Why does the announcement of a 16-year-old Dutch driver whom, in all probability, will be able to count his points tally on his hands at the end of the 2015 season, receive such coverage, compared, say, to the likely futures of former world champions and racing giants such as Jenson Button or Sebastian Vettel?

The answer may not be as simple as it first appears. Certainly, there is truth in the contention that disproportionate interest is only matching disproportionate achievement on the Wunderkind's part. At an age when 99.99% of cricketers were still refining the basics, the prodigious Sachin Tendulkar was taking apart the best and most aggressive bowling Australia had to offer as a fresh-faced 16-year-old; Tiger Woods held a golf club in his hand before many of his contemporaries could walk. In this sense, the achievement of Verstappen and others becomes a triumph of relativity, a story of ability overcoming experience, of talent trumping practice, of nature defeating nurture.

The sensation of the Wunderkind is thus rooted in a form of naturalism and romanticism, in a similar way perhaps to the adoration of the successes of sport and society's elder residents. From Jo Pavey's remarkable gold-winning performance at the European Championships at the age of 40, to the spritely shuffles of octogenarian Sir Bruce Forsyth on Strictly Come Dancing, there is again culture of disproportionate interest.

Whereas a degree of nostalgia may well account for a large portion of the intrigue in athletes such as Kim Collins, the 38-year-old sprinting icon from the Caribbean, the Wunderkind sensation arguably draws upon a more perverse reasoning. Indeed, as we follow the meteoric rise of young sensations in society, and the trappings of fame and fortune that we both follow, and contribute to with this affixation, it reflects an equal recognition of our own failings. Had our lives taken slightly different turns, we believe, we too could have possessed a chart-topper or a world record or a super car before the crescent of teenage years had disappeared behind us.

There is nothing to criticise in this public infatuation with the romantic stories of our child prodigies and wonder kids. It is a rare gift that must be celebrated, nurtured and encouraged, for the belief in improvement and further potential is an illusive state of mind that breeds positivity and foresight. Of course, the Wunderkind does not always fulfil the expectations. In the footballing world, injury and lack of confidence undermined a starlet in Kieran Dyer, once tipped to anchor England's midfield for a decade. Yet such failures should only contribute to the hype rightly heaped upon those young shoulders. For, if the possibility of failure was never there, the progress would never be made, and the Wunderkinds would never be set apart from those 'regulars' who love a kick-about, who enjoy tennis but can't serve properly, who can impress their parents by playing chopsticks at the age of eight, but never touch a piano again.


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