An eternal debate exists in the world of journalism and sports viewing as to whether ex-athletes should be in the broadcast booths at sporting events or if their presence encroaches on the domain of experienced, formally trained announcers.
But as far as one scientist is concerned, that question has been settled: former athletes clearly make the best commentators because as announcers they are observing actions that they have already internalized.
Mirror neurons are the reason, Italian neurobiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti said in an interview with EFE, referring to a class of neurons that fire both when an individual executes a motor act and when he/she observes another individual performing the same or a similar motor act.
"In Italy, for example, there are two commentators. A sports journalist comments on the game. The champion explains what's happening. The other talks, talks and talks. Each of them contributes their knowledge, but it's the former player who has played and has his internal representation and his own experience who is better able to describe" the action, the 82-year-old scientist said.
The man behind the 1996 discovery of mirror neurons, which may provide a neural basis for empathy and imitation, is visiting Uruguay for several days on a trip arranged by Italy's embassy in the South American country.
His agenda has included a colloquium with members of Uruguay's scientific community and a ceremony on Wednesday in which he received an honorary degree from the University of the Republic (Udelar) in Montevideo.
The director of the University of Parma's Neuroscience Department and the Italian Institute of Technology's Brain Center for Social and Motor Cognition, Rizzolatti has received numerous prizes throughout his career.
Those honors include Spain's prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for Technical and Scientific Research (along with Joseph Altman and Arturo Alvarez-Buylla) in 2011 for having provided "solid proof of the regeneration of neurons in adult brains (neurogenesis)."
The mirror-neuron system, which was the topic of the talk Rizzolatti gave at the Udelar's main auditorium, allows human beings to relate to others through empathy and imitation, he said, adding that that latter mechanism is especially important in the world of sports.
"The imitation model is crucial, whether in soccer or basketball or tennis. If I know how to play tennis, if I see (Spanish great Rafael) Nadal play, for example, I see how to learn these techniques and that will facilitate my development. But if I've never played, I see how he (uses) the racquet but I don't have the internal knowledge," he told EFE.
That internal knowledge, which is developed via the mirror-neuron system, makes it possible for expert commentators to "see what's going to happen next."
That ability was demonstrated in an experiment conducted in Rome in which basketball players were asked to predict whether a shot was going in the hoop or not based solely on the shooter's motion.
"Champions responded correctly a very high percentage of the time, while very good players - but not ones we would call champions - were less accurate," Rizzolatti said.
The neurobiologist added that he is a big fan of Olympic diving but that all of the competitors seem very good to him and he doesn't understand the variance in the scores they receive from the judges.
"But an expert knows if a (dive was well executed) or not," Rizzolatti said.