The spirit may be willing but the body is ageing: When star athletes finally call it a day

Athletic prowess in many sports peaks around 30 and rarely lasts beyond 40

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By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 21 Sep 2022, 8:24 PM

Withering post mortems are underway about the Indian cricket team, with a focus on some of its superstars, following a series of underwhelming performances on the field. Those under scrutiny include captain Rohit Sharma, 35, star batter Virat Kohli, 33, and bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar, 32. All three have worn national colours for more than a decade and have turned in match-winning performances that have become fewer and rarer with the passage of time.

Calls are growing for dropping them from the team or soliciting their "voluntary" retirement, given their declining performances and the number of youngsters snapping at their heels.

The issue of sporting longevity or performance in relation to age is resonating in recent weeks following the retirement of tennis star Roger Federer, 41, and Serena Williams, 40. The sudden emergence of a new set of young tennis stars at the US Open has also put the focus on the inevitable retirement of Rafael Nadal, 36, and of Noval Djokovic, 35. Attention is also zeroing in on Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, and Lionel Messi, 35, for both of whom the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar is seen as the last chance to carry their national sides to the title.

It is evident from the above shortlist of retired and impending retirees that athletic prowess in many sports peaks around 30 and rarely lasts beyond 40. In cricket, as in many sports, reflexes begin to slow around 35. Beyond that, performances hinge more on experience and guile. Great athletes, from Michael Jordan to Tom Brady to MS Dhoni, have pushed up to 40 and beyond on the strength of their experience, even as their natural ability and reflexes fade. The legend Usain Bolt was done and dusted by 31 in the more exacting world of sprints, as was Michael Phelps, who won 28 Olympic medals in a 12-year swimming career before retiring at 31.

Some athletes continue to play "competitively for the fun of it" even if that sounds like an oxymoron. Martina Navratilova retired at 49, and Leander Paes stretched it to 48, and they won grand slam mixed doubles titles at 49 and 43 respectively. Boxers too seem to have a hard time retiring, George Foreman and Larry Holmes punching their way to 50. On the flip side, there is Herb Elliot, who at the 1960 Rome Olympics, destroyed the competition in the 1,500 by more than 20 meters, and broke his own world record by nearly a half-second in 3:35.6. The record stood for seven years, and his time would have won seven of the next nine Olympic 1,500s. He quit at 22 and never ran a major race again.

Few sports legends retire at their peak because it is hard to assess when the downhill slide begins. The great Sunil Gavaskar was thought to have plenty of gas in the tank when he retired at 36 after an epic 96 in his final test, having earlier announced his decision to exit the test arena. He was firm in his decision and there was no coming back. Some other legends, notably Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar, had to be gently eased into retirement after a visible decline in their performances. Rahul Dravid and Virendar Sehwag found out their day in the sun was done via the rattling of their stumps. Michael Jordan on the other hand came back twice from retirement announcements -- and was good enough to win titles after the first -- before a third and final exit at 40.

No athlete underperforms on purpose, and indeed, every sports person would like to go out on a high, their legacy burnished by a great finale. This seldom happens because it is hard to get a sense of when one has peaked -- least of all in the athletes themselves. There is no "inner voice," and even if there is one, it is usually ignored because of other factors: Sometimes it is commercial (contracts, and the desire to maximize earnings in a relatively short career), a consideration triggered by agents, sponsors, and other patrons. Sometimes it is their own reluctance to fade out of the limelight and forfeit the adulation they have gotten used to.

Usually, it is someone outside of the athlete and his or her inner circle who notices the decline in their performance. But as far as the athlete is concerned, the dip in form is temporary – there is always a great performance or a big one around the corner and “I know best” when to retire. Having gotten into the sport at a relatively young age, few athletes have an idea that there is life beyond that sport – beyond even the coaching and administration jobs some of them get into. Retirement, as someone noted, is not the end of the road; it is the beginning of the open highway. We see very few athletes on this highway of life.

- The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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