Mike Rowbottom: Only the phenomenon of great talent can make you ageless

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The Independent Online

You know when you're getting older. It's when people start telling you how young you look.

You know when you're getting older. It's when people start telling you how young you look.

There are many other methods of confirming your increasing age, of course. Perhaps the most accurate indicator is the Christmas test. Imagine it is December. Someone – usually a young someone or a commercially minded someone – will announce brightly that there are only 11 days left until Christmas. If you think "Whoopee!'' you are young. Painfully young. If you think "cards, send present for her dad, but what? another book? Get logs, not damp ones this time, find that other place and booze in early, no more Apricot bloody brandy, tartar sauce not burn-your-mouth horseradish, idiot! Clear the freezer for the shopping, pay day? Check when seeing parents, need get wrapping, Sellotape, should be in drawer but isn't, why? Must cats book-in and mend baskets, must find card list this year, send off early, when's last post and present for her dad, but what? What?'' Then you are old.

And yet there seem to be so many other helpful indicators around.

After watching West Ham win at Upton Park this season – now there's a specific date for you – I was being served tea by a very helpful lady in claret and sky blue uniform (I was feeling young at this point because she was definitely older than me) when I noticed a display which had been put up in honour of Bobby Moore.

I had always understood that West Ham had been led to victory in the 1964 FA Cup final by a man, but on closer inspection of the photograph taken during their lap of honour, I realised this task had actually been accomplished by a boy. Staring at my childhood idol, his face radiant beneath scraped, side-parted blond hair, I found it hard to believe how absurdly young he had been on that happy Saturday afternoon.

As it happened, there was no crack in my tea cup. But I didn't need one to taste dusty death.

Then there was Haile Gebrselassie. It's not logical, I know, but I think of Ethiopia's double Olympic champion as being older than me, even though, strictly speaking, he isn't. And therefore, I suppose, never can be. Unless he carries on living after I'm not. But that wouldn't count.

The fact of the matter is that this little man, who has dominated middle-distance running for a decade, has still to turn 30. The truth of the matter is that Gebrselassie's talent has simply made him ageless. He has existed, by and large, as a phenomenon. When you see him in a race you know how it will be.

After he had broken the world indoor two-miles record in Birmingham last Friday week, I watched him closely during his genial post-race press conference, trying to take in just how relatively young he was. It was no good. He still felt older than me.

Feeling old, however, is not a mathematical thing. You don't feel twice as old at 42 as you did at 21. At least not in my experience. I remember my 21st birthday well for its sinking sensation of burdensome years.

Earlier this week I spoke to a young woman who has just reached that key-to-the-door age herself, Zara Phillips. As she blushingly thanked a small gathering of friends and press, following the announcement that Cantor Index is sponsoring her attempt to make a senior British three-day event team, she seemed very young indeed.

Yet her mum and dad – Princess Anne and Captain Mark Phillips – had both made their mark in equestrianism by the time they were 19. Dad had been part of the Olympic team at the 1968 Mexico Games, and mum had won the Burghley Horse Trials and the senior European title.

Phillips indicated her potential last year by winning the Bramham Horse Trials and taking individual silver at the Young Riders' European Championships, but, as her father pointed out this week, it is a very big step up from there to competing with the world's best in an event that is, in his estimation, far more stringent than it was during his competitive days.

So swiftly are standards rising that Phillips, who is chéf d'equipe to the world champions, the United States, told his riders that if they reproduced their World Championship performance at next year's Athens Olympics, they wouldn't win a medal. They needed to do more.

His daughter, boldly, is giving eventing her best shot. But as she remarked rather plaintively as she contemplated the challenges ahead: "I should have picked another sport, really."

And if Zara Phillips feels old, then how old does that make... no, let's not get started on that again.

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