Too Few are Flipping Father Time the Finger

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-30s – appears to some degree to be a self fulfilling limitation.

Here, more than anywhere in the world it seems, if you’re 30-plus 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 to the ’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 eighth and ninth 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 year-old-plus players returning to the game realising they’re a helluva long time retired.  Even Over 60s and Over 70s 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.

About Jeff Dowsing

Washed up former Inside Sport and Sunday Age Sport freelancer. Now just giving my stuff away to good homes. Not to worry, still have my health and day job. Published & unpublished works fester on my blog Write Line Fever.


  1. You raise an interesting question JD, but to me it feels like you created a straw man to knock him down.
    If there is much difference between Oz and the US it is down to the different physical demands of their major sports, and maybe to some extent their much greater physical rewards for playing longer.
    AFL is full time intensity for everyone on the field. A gridiron quarterback like Peyton Manning has to be big and agile with a strong arm. They cop occasional intense collisions from sacks which cause injuries, but there is none of the continuous action of AFL. Same for their kickers and punters who do something intense as often as Hayleys Comet comes around.
    Baseball games last as long as a T20 cricket game, so while there is daily action it is not as intense. Pitchers like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemons (steroids) have longevity and have to preserve their arms, but there is none of the pressure on backs and knees as our fast bowlers have. There is no run up to generate pace for baseball pitchers. Baseball is largely played at night under lights for 3 hours, with players often in the dugout when they bat. Cricketers are in the blazing summer heat for 6 hours for several days running.
    Brad Hogg is a classic knuckleballer like Phil Niekro or Tommy John. Long may he thrive and bamboozle. He should be in our World Cup side. Maybe its the selectors that are ageist.

  2. You make a valid point Peter with your apples & oranges contention. Some US sports are short & sharp in their nature which is conducive to longevity. It might also be worth noting baseball is a 162 game season which must be physically & mentally draining (factoring in travel & training). There’s also been a number of NBA players who’ve thrived until 40-ish (80 game seasons). Of course physical capability ultimately trumps everything however I do believe athletes here are pressured into retiring earlier and it has manifested itself into a congenital willingness to accept the notion you’re cooked at 3x.

    One positive of T20 imo is that it has enabled veterans like Hodge & Hussey to stick around a bit longer. Though I wonder if players who still have something to offer in Shield ranks are incentivised to pull up stumps earlier for T20 riches.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Nice piece JD,
    If they are playing to the level required in any sport, age shouldn’t matter. It will be interesting to see how the PIES use Swannie this year. 31 in May.

  4. Swan is a perfect example of what I’m talking about PD – has one ordinary injury plagued season at 30 and it’s assumed he’s on the downhill slope.

    Swan’s best value is in the guts but if the likes of Freeman, Greenwood & Adams deliver and enable him to spend time up forward then it may be what’s best for the team.

    You can’t buy experience and given the Pies’ young list Swan having a good year is crucial.

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