Levitating basketball players: investigating the psychic in sport

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

Years ago, a friend persuaded me that a reviewer should almost never give a book a bad review. Most books, he argued, are written with honest effort. Writers often devote years of their lives, whereas reviewers put in hours. Even a mediocre book that hardly anyone will ever read generally contains something worth passing on in a review. Savage reviews are usually just attempts to show off.

Ed Hawkins, a respected investigative sports journalist, worked hard on The Men on Magic Carpets. But I struggle to find anything good to say about it.

He starts from an interesting premise: during the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States employed psychics to win sports matches and, potentially, wars. In 1978, at the world chess championship between the USSR’s Anatoly Karpov and the ex-Soviet defector Viktor Korchnoi, the KGB’s mind-control agent Dr Zoukhar sat in the audience sending negative brainwaves to Korchnoi. The player, advised by

two members of an Indian religious sect… did handstands away from the table in an attempt to make Zoukhar’s orders fall from his head. His mistress sat next to Zoukhar. She kicked him. She tickled him. Until Karpov’s fitness instructor sat on her.

Korchnoi lost, and lamented: ‘I expected to play one against one. Instead the whole Red Army, led by Zoukhar, was against me.’

Dozens of Soviet scientists worked on mind control and extrasensory perception. A woman named Nina Kulagina, a product of Russia’s centuries-old ‘psychic heritage’, could reputedly stop a frog’s heart just by staring at it. Forget sport — the military applications were obvious. Meanwhile, over in 1970s California, hippies at the Esalen Institute on the cliffs of Big Sur were on a similar quest for the psychic in sport.

Hawkins was fascinated. He wanted to discover whether basketball players could really levitate, or golfers could control the ball through the power of thought. His burning question was: ‘Does the superhuman sports star actually exist?’ The obvious answer is no. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Hawkins.

His main sources are aged ex-hippies talking their own book. They are patient with Hawkins, or possibly just have time on their hands. They assure him that the Esalen movement inspired Star Wars; they recount an experiment that showed, ‘apparently’, that it’s possible to transmit ‘positive intention’ to faraway baseball players; and the spoon-bender Uri Geller claims he made Scotland miss a penalty against England at the Euro ’96 football tournament by sending thought waves to move the ball.

One former military man sends thoughtwaves to Hawkins over lunch. Hawkins, under instructions to say the first thing that pops into his mind, shouts: ‘Bunny rabbit.’ The old man is triumphant: ‘I was sending you an image of a bunny.’ Hawkins is ‘wowed’, until his wife points out: ‘You do realise he probably just agreed with you to make you both feel better?’ But these moments of scepticism are too rare.

Hawkins spends many pages investigating the thesis that a man named Pete Carroll is superhuman. As a student in the 1970s, Carroll believed in levitation, and (in classic Californian striver fashion) used to read a Buddhist meditation manual while driving down the freeway. Today he is the coach of the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks American football team. Eventually Hawkins establishes phone contact with Carroll, which results in long, under-edited interviews.

Gradually, much more slowly than the reader, Hawkins realises that most of his interviewees binned their juvenile spiritualism decades ago. The Soviets worked out that psychics are good but amphetamines are better, while the Californians moved on to sports psychology. Carroll may speak the hippie-influenced management jargon beloved of corporate America, but he teaches his players standard psychological techniques. They learn to visualise the next game; they study an opponent’s body language so as to foresee his next move; they reduce anxiety through breathing techniques; and they practise moves until they can do them without thinking.

All this stuff helps you win sports matches, and could help the US military win wars (albeit not in practice). But none of it is occult. When Hawkins asks the Seahawks’ psychologist to explain how Carroll has taken Esalen’s ideas and ‘run with them’, the guy replies: ‘I don’t think he’s taken those ideas and run with them.’ Hawkins tried to write a book about the occult but has ended up writing a book about modern sports psychology without quite realising it.

All through, he remains a sucker for spiritualia. He and his pregnant wife try ‘hypnobirthing’, and it works all too well: she falls into such a deep trance that ‘she didn’t even realise she was in full-blown labour’ (Hawkins’ italics). Suddenly the baby pops out in the living room.

The psychological parts of the book are credible but unremarkable. The psychic parts are remarkable but incredible. Self-consciously wacky, structured without the benefit of chronology, The Men on Magic Carpets ate six hours of my life.

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