Column: Beckham, Federer prove gravediggers wrong

Nov 25 2011 - 5:08pm

PARIS -- For sports fans who feel or who are on the wrong side of 40, the annual awards season can be a little sobering.

"Player Of The Year," "Athlete Of The Year," "Absurdly Fit and Sculpted Body of The Year." For the majority of us not in the running for such acclaim, the winners can appear as otherworldly as gods, admirable but too untouchable to be truly inspiring. Plus, annoyingly, they only get younger with each passing year.

So how about something that more of us can relate to? Perhaps an "At Least He/She Tried Prize?" Michael Schumacher would be a favorite to win that, two years into his Formula One comeback that hasn't produced a single victory or podium finish.

Or a "Still Had a Go, Despite the Creakiest Knees in Sports Award." New Zealand cricketer Martin Crowe is a certainty there, limping over the line ahead of Tiger Woods, himself in the running for the "Continues to Believe in Himself When Others Don't Cup."

Ian Thorpe has a lock on the "Isn't Afraid to Fail Medal," to go with his five Olympic golds in swimming. He is more "Slow-Mo" than "Thorpedo" these days, but the important thing is that he's happy to be back in a pool.

And the trophy for eking out every drop of their talent, for proving premature gravediggers wrong, will be shared by David Beckham, Paula Radcliffe, Roger Federer, Haile Gebrselassie, Frank Lampard, Ryan Giggs or any of the multitude of other 30-something athletes who proved again this year that one of the most insensitive, thoughtless and rude questions one can ask of people who have given sports fans so much pleasure over the years is, "When are you going to retire?"

Hand them a cyanide pill or push them under a bus, why don't you? The actual act of winning may be a young person's game in many sports but it's reassuring and human to see a few wrinkles out there competing, too.

Because winning is everything in sports, one thing that will never change is overeagerness to write off stars when they grow out of their twenties.

Rio Ferdinand only has to have a few shaky games in the Manchester United defense for whispers to begin that, at 33, he is ready for football's glue factory.

We're sinking into the world of "Logan's Run," the 1976 sci-fi drama where life ends at 30, when Federer is asked whether he'll quit after he didn't win a Grand Slam title this season.

Show some respect.

Watching Giggs, Ferdinand's teammate, still scoring and making goals when he turns 38 next week feels good precisely because of his age. The laws of nature decree that the young will inherit the Earth and Giggs' place in the United team. But with yoga to lubricate his creaky hamstrings and his football brains and experience compensating for lost pace, Giggs is forcing them to wait their turn.

For anyone brought up in the era of Pink Floyd and "MASH" or earlier, spending any amount of time in the youth-fest that is an Olympic Games can be a lesson in depression and self-loathing. But there's encouragement to be had from the thickening flecks of gray in Giggs' hair and stubble. Bless him.

In purely sporting terms, Schumacher's F1 comeback has been a failure. Damningly, Nico Rosberg, Schumacher's Mercedes teammate 16 years his junior, has been quicker than him in qualifying in 15 of the 18 races before this weekend's final grand prix in Brazil. For some, the seven-time world champion, now 42, has only tarnished our memories of him by returning to the sport. It's brave of Schumacher to do that. He is not so vain that he wants to be remembered, like Dorian Gray, only for his youthful triumphs.

Thorpe is brave, too, for throwing himself back in the deep end even though he knows he is likely to fail in his quest to qualify for the London Games. There was always the feeling that the Australian, drained by his stellar career during which he achieved so much, so young, retired too early in 2006. That spending hours in a pool no longer repels Thorpe is reason enough to be happy for him, making it secondary whether he succeeds or not with this comeback.

"Most importantly, I've rediscovered love and passion for my sport," Thorpe, still only 29, said last week.

But the prize for trying goes to Crowe. At 49, the former New Zealand test batsman knew that his attempted return to top-class cricket was doomed even before he started. He was right. Three balls into a match last weekend, he pulled a muscle and called it quits again.

"I pulled a hip flexor in July, a hamstring in August, a groin in October and now a thigh, all upper left leg, all compensating for a dodgy arthritic right knee," he said. "It was sort of fun along the way.

"No regrets."

There, better to try than to not.

True at any age and something we can all relate to.

 

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