Federer v Nadal. Australian Open Final 2017. Combined age:65
Serena v Venus. Ladies’ Australian Open Final 2017. Combined age: 71
The continued brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Premier League debut season. Age: 35
Tom Brady’s 7th SuperBowl appearance and 5th ring. Quarterback and Leader of the New England Patriots. Age: 39
Why are so many veterans finding success in high profile sport at the moment? It’s beginning to feel like the heady days of the noughties again. How I yearn for those simpler times. Fewer bills. More ice on the ice-caps. An opposition party in the House of Commons. Those were indeed the days.
The Twittersphere and the mainstream media has been awash and aghast about the prolific recent success of so-called veteran athletes. There has been widespread discussion about the whys and wherefores of this apparent phenomenon. Is there a dearth of young talent coming through the ranks of these various sports? Is it down to medical advancements and sports science? Or are these individuals just simply GOATs (Greatest of All Time) and therefore it’s just a golden period for older athletes?
Before I give my own personal view on this, the obvious answer is that, as always, it is all these factors (and more) to varying extents. In my personal opinion Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all time, same with Serena Williams and, although my knowledge of the sport is limited, Tom Brady is often acknowledged as the best quarterback (certainly the most successful) in NFL history, especially so after the Patriots’ remarkable comeback victory on Sunday. However, the thing with the debates about GOATs is that they are only able to be judged in their own space and time. How can anyone actually accurately compare different athletes in different eras? Is Jimmy Anderson a better English fast bowler than Bob Willis or Ian Botham? He has more wickets, but with more Test cricket to play and on pitches that have changed beyond all recognition. What about LeBron James vs Michael Jordan in basketball? Obviously the court dimensions are the same, conditions are consistent, but since Jordan’s 1990’s heyday, defences are more sophisticated, sports analysis is more detailed and, arguably, the overall quality and speed of the game has increased.
With the constant advancement of sport, the eternal strive for improvement, you could make a cogent argument for the theory that the modern champions or world number 1s are the greatest players/teams in that sport of all time. The easiest way to make this point is through sports that test the physicality of humans in a quite linear way, such as athletics, swimming and cycling. Michael Johnson is generally regarded as the greatest male 400m runner of all time, but put him at his peak in a race with Wayde Van Niekerk at his peak and who wins? Van Niekerk is now the fastest man of all time in that discipline. The same for Adam Peaty in the 50m and 100m breaststroke, surely this makes him the greatest of all time? That’s what world records are there for. Perhaps I am being too simplistic and perhaps if you did indeed put Johnson circa 1996 and Van Niekerk circa 2016 on track at the same time the determination and racing nous of Johnson may well prevail, and there is no doubt that Johnson moved the sport on with his concentration on perfect sprinting technique.
I think that observers of sport have almost been caught out by the advancement of society. All around us, in every sphere of life, science has moved our world on, rapidly. This has brought great benefits to the knowledge around health and well-being in all our lives, and therefore, also, possibly more so, in the world of sport.
Allow me, if you would, to throw some facts at you:
- In 1992 the average age of the men’s top 10 in tennis was 23.2 years.
- In 2002 it was 24.5 years.
- In 2015 it was 28.6 years.
- In 1992 the average age of the women’s top 10 in tennis was 21.7 years.
- In 2002 it was 22.0 years.
- In 2014 it was 25.9 years.
Here are a couple of graphs that illustrate trends of Olympic athletes average age trends and track and field athlete age trends over the years:
For me, the most interesting thing to note about the Olympic athletes graph is the dip from the 1950s into the 1960s to the 1990s. My theory is that the post-war children came through and were able to take advantage of greater emphasis in society on developing sports programmes for young people in, relative, safety and security. Certainly fewer young people were going off to war in any case.
An interestingly we see that track and field athletics is no longer a young person’s game as the average ages for athletes follow a clear upward trend.
So what are the reasons for these trends across some sports?
The training of young athletes is more sophisticated than ever and taking into account the general rule (though often disputed) that it takes 10,000 hours to attain mastery of a skill. With talent spotting and academies identifying “talent” younger and younger, ignoring the drop out rate, the athletes that do make it should master the skills at a younger age than ever before. Even taking into account the obvious extra development required when getting into the professional ranks, experience, physical strength, mental toughness, tactical nous, you would think that we would be seeing a lot more young athletes starring in their sports and the mean age of athletes to regress over time.
As seen above, the facts and trends in most sports are defying this. So, why? Clearly a large percentage of it must be down to the longevity of the top athletes still in the sport. The sports science, nutrition, the expansion of the support networks around both individual athletes and teams, the way that every detail of preparation is pored over and performance analysed, all means that the natural decline of athletes that we associate with the age of 30 and above is not really happening as early or as quickly.
I first became aware of the power of medical intervention in football when reading an article about the Milan Lab. This addition to the Milanello training complex came at huge cost to the administration of AC Milan but in the long run saved them a fortune in transfer fees, signing-on fees and scouting, as they did not need to replace ageing stars at the age of 30, or even 35 in most cases. Their “ageing” team made it to Champions League finals in the mid to late 2000s, and their model was copied all over Europe in all different sports. There is still a pre-disposition in the media and among “experts” to criticise managers/clubs who allow a squad to “age” without injecting the vigour of youth to “freshen things up”, just as Guardiola is being praised this week for his use of Sterling, Sané and, most notably, the new Brazilian sensation Gabriel Jésus, as his frontline. However, how many youngsters are runaway leaders Chelsea using at the moment? How old are the candidates for the Ballon D’Or?
I am not saying that young talent should be excluded from the top table of professional sport. I am fully in favour of young players getting their opportunity, and I agree that if they are good enough then they are old enough, because they have to be allowed to develop that bit further, especially mentally. All I am trying to point out is that top sportspeople in the modern age will not simply fade away past the age of 28, 30, or even, 33, and it is creating a new problem of the blockage of young talent in sports across the board and across the world. Somehow youth development has to overtake the current generation by some other means than simply being fitter, faster and stronger than the current crop as it no longer rings true.
Taking this into the amateur/recreational sporting world it should give us all a lot of hope. Obviously, I have taken on this Olympic Challenge at the age of 31 and whilst being, let’s be generous, slightly out-of-peak condition, and the idea was to inspire someone else to take up a sport or activity. There is no saying that this person, or people, should be young people. It is more important than ever that people of all ages get out from behind screens to exercise and give their bodies a chance. Yes, we have all this fantastic medical science keeping us alive longer, but at what cost? The NHS is struggling with the sheer volume of people coming through it’s doors with health problems, so many of them brought on by things that can be helped through sport and exercise i.e. heart conditions, diabetes, mental health issues. The very fact that the elite athletes are pursuing high performance to an older age means that we should be looking to maintain, or even improve, our sporting prowess into our 40s, 50s and well beyond.
You may have seen this guy doing the interview rounds on TV, or heard him on the radio; his name is Charles Eugster. He has released a book, so obviously his agency have sent his story around the talk shows and I have heard him on TalkSport, BBC 5live and seen him on various day time talk shows (of varying quality). He is now 97 years old but would put most of us to shame with his attitude to life and exercise, here is a bit of the marketing blurb to illustrate my point:
He started competitive age-group rowing at 63.
He took up body building at 87.
He began sprinting at the age of 95.
He has British records for 60m Indoor, 100m outdoor, 200m Outdoor and Long Jump.
He is a two-time World Record holder for his age group in sprinting.
He is a 4-time World Fitness Champion.
He has won a staggering 40 Gold Medals for World Masters Rowing.
His TEDx talk has been downloaded over a half a million times.
He is a 97 year old retired Dental Surgeon now turned author.
HE IS CHARLES EUGSTER.
Now, without reading the book (though I intend to get round to it!) I don’t know the ins and outs of Charles’ story but having heard him being interviewed I know that he firmly believes that age is just a number and there is no reason why ageing should stop us being able to do anything, especially being physically fit. He also believes, as I do, that being physically fit helps with mental fitness and can provide great stimulus in our lives. The key, he says, to defy the brain-washing influence of society that ageing is a negative is to participate in life-long learning.
I hope that reading this post has enabled you to learn something and, though I may be biased, I have certainly inspired myself to redouble my efforts into getting fitter and throwing myself into more sport and learning new things. After all, age is just a number, and if Roger, Rafa, Serena, Venus, Zlatan and Tom Brady can keep defying the ageing process then, dammit, so can I!