The ageist nature of Sport needs to be called into question writes Oliver Keohane.
Sport has a crass relationship with age. Young talents are thrust into a system and either adored for succeeding or dropped for stumbling. There seems to be very little faith that those who aren’t quite there yet by 20 could turn out to be brilliant at 25. In a grossly capitalistic way, sport exponentially searches for younger and better each year, leaves a debris of talented players who couldn’t make the step up right away, and in doing so entirely disregards the seasoned veterans who were once prodigal youngsters.
The crassness of this narrative is that regardless of performance or circumstance, at a certain age players across sporting codes have their credentials called into question. And the reason is none other than a number. At a certain stage past mid thirties, fans and even coaches seems to automatically believe that the athlete must either retire, or start considering it.
The sporting world is so willing to do out with “the old” based on a number. But where is the attention to the other numbers?
43 year old Tom Brady just lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their second Super Bowl title ever, increasing his personal tally to seven rings. Brady, who intends on playing to 45, has in one season with the Buccaneers already matched or exceeded the team’s total Super Bowl titles, playoff road wins, and playoff touchdown passes in the team’s previous 44 years of existence (according to ESPN). But of course, in 2017 Brady was offered by coach Bill Belichick, ahead of other New England Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (25), to the 49ers. He didn’t end up going then, and instead left on his own terms after still leading the Patriots to two more Super Bowl finals and winning one of them.
In the cricketing world, Stuart Broad (34) and James Anderson (38) are currently ranked two and three in the world in Test bowling figures. Anderson in his last five years has taken over double the wickets he did in his first five years, taking 62 between 2003 to 2007 and 144 between 2017 to 2021. Old enough is good enough.
Old enough is good enough in the case of Lionel Messi (33) and Cristiano Ronaldo (36) who still dominate scoring statistics everywhere they go. It’s good enough for Zlatan Ibrahimovich who at 39 has scored 16 goals in 17 appearances between the Europa League, Serie A and Coppa Italia.
New Zealand Rugby has never dominated like they did between 2010-2015, winning two World Cups back to back under the captaincy of Richie McCaw. in 2012 though (at 31 years old), McCaw was finished according to many because Sam Cane had arrived.
Kelly Slater, the youngest and oldest surfing world champion ever and a champion at 40. He’s still cooking at age 48. Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer continued to dominate through cries for them to retire. Serena Williams, 39 and through motherhood continues to impose herself as the best in women’s tennis. The list goes on across individual and team sports, and for all the evidence fans and coaches continue to get it wrong. Players continue to be prematurely retired, overlooked and undervalued for the flavour of the month twenty year old.
Why is young enough good enough, but old enough is not? Why is it that twenty years of age trumps twenty years of titles? Sport, as a whole – from administration to coaches to fans – needs to reassess its relationship with age.