As published by The Footy Almanac, 21 February 2015
If life is but a crack of light between two infinite walls of darkness (according to Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov), then how depressingly short is a career in sport?
Despite great investment and advances in medicine, nutrition, training and recovery, not to mention Australia’s average lifespan increasing 25 years since 1910, our elite athlete’s time in the sun has barely lengthened over the past century.
Sure, the pressures and physical demands are incomparable, but all things considered, the glass ceiling – which for most physically demanding sports is perceived to be around the early to mid-30’s – appears to some degree to be a self fulfilling limitation.
Here, more than anywhere in the world it seems, if you’re 30+ and hit a flat patch it’s time to start penning your retirement speech and find yourself a Zimmer frame. Give the young ones a go. Stop embarrassing yourself ya selfish old bastard!
The typical AFL player ekes out just six years and in the NRL a measly four. American averages are similarly low (NBA 4.8, NFL 3.5, MLB and NHL 5.5) however considerably more of their accomplished athletes have proven capable of turning back the years.
Is it because Americans generally afford greater respect and encouragement to their elders (athletes, performers and one-foot-in-the-grave presidential candidates alike)? Is sentimentality a factor – clubs, fans and media more inclined to will their stars to push on?
Consider three-time Stanley Cup winner Chris Chelios who quit in 2010 at 48. Post-40 the 1981 draftee captained USA at the Olympics and was an NHL All-Star. Another ice hockey legend, Gordie Howe, suited up in six different decades (1940s – 1990s).
In baseball age was no handicap for Jamie Moyer, winning the 2008 World Series at 45 before retiring in 2012. Phil Niekro, the all-time winningest knuckleballer, was dominant right until his last pitch at 48. And Hall of Fame fireballer Nolan Ryan routinely hurled 100 mph fastballs until he was 46.
In the NFL, all-time leading scorer Morten Andersen retired at 47 in 2008. George Blanda, who hung up the boots at 48, played across four decades (1940s through ’70s). And for Peyton Manning, a broken neck in 2011 at 35 has proved but a minor hiccup for the superstar quarterback.
Outside of team sports, the list goes on. Swimmer Dara Torres (41) medalled for the USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. At 59 Tom Watson would have won his sixth British Open in 2009 had he parred the final hole or won the playoff.
Elsewhere the likes of Martina Navratilova, Ryan Giggs, Merlene Ottey, Graham Gooch, Irene Van Dyk and George Foreman have demonstrated what can be achieved with determination, intensive recovery, adaptation and guile.
Despite people growing older and living more actively for longer – notwithstanding Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s ‘highly probable’ 150 year life expectancy call was a trifle optimistic – we marvel at Brad Hogg (43) and Dustin Fletcher (almost 40) as if they’re the 8th and 9th wonders of the world. Seriously, old-man-Fletch jokes are rivalling Christmas bon bon side-splitters for quantity (and quality).
Likewise Brent Harvey and Sam Soliman are as likely to be subjected to (mostly) friendly ridicule as being lauded as inspirations. Meanwhile, a bad day at the office warrants being pitied like a wounded seagull.
Is it envy or an offshoot of the Aussie tall poppy syndrome that drives armchair experts, some of whom can barely bend over their gut to pick up a ball for junior, to write off our vets as readily as a dented Daihatsu?
Even all time cricketing greats Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting faced mounting speculation that tended towards an irresistible force.
Better to be a quitter and bitter than tarnish a legacy by playing slightly shitter.
Thus the end is often pre-empted. Now the considerably younger, albeit chronically hamstrung Michael Clarke is under pressure to acknowledge his imminent expiry date. Add Tim Cahill to the list of careers that some would have on death row.
Of course beyond the modern physical and mental stresses, competition for spots and forensic list management has intensified. Though one might argue the financial carrot to hang on is just as compelling (particularly in the US given a notable Sports Illustrated piece which found that two years out from retirement, 78% of NFL players were bankrupt, while five years out from retirement, 60% of NBA players were bankrupt).
On a positive note, at the equally important grass roots, there is substantial growth in over-age participation. Super Rules (AFL) in Melbourne is thriving and for rugby retirees there is the ever popular Touch footy. Cricket has a fast growing base of 40+ players returning to the game realising they’re a helluva long time retired. Even O/60’s and O/70’s competitions are emerging.
Perhaps if we weren’t so ageist or age obsessed as a society our top level athletes would also feel more inclined to have a longer crack before hitting that infinite, dark wall.