Is there life after sport?

Badminton star's decision to quit at the age of 23 underlines the need for career advice
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The Independent Online
It Was a subdued announcement. On the wave of big-time sporting intelligence which now perpetually engulfs the world it barely managed a ripple. Alison Humby had retired at the age of 23.

Had the initial reports not mistakenly said that she took part in the Atlanta Olympic Games, the minimal coverage with which her departure was greeted might have been reduced. The name's Humby, the achievements were considered simply humble.

Yet for 12 years Alison Humby has dedicated her life to badminton and seems to exemplify the modern difficulties of being gifted at sport. The demand for success demands increasing sacrifices, not always for much reward in terms of cash, and although it can be huge fun for a while it can also leave a gaping hole at the end of it called the rest of your life.

Humby was a teenage prodigy who won the national under-18 singles title three times. She won the Hungarian Open women's singles tournament in 1993, has been ranked third in Britain for three years and reached number 34 in the world. To do this, most of it amid a distinct lack of fanfare, she left school at 16. She took a part-time job partly for the money, partly to give her something else to do. Now she wonders what else there is to do.

"I feel I'm qualified but I've got no pieces of paper," she said. "I've travelled to parts of the world I wouldn't have done if it wasn't for badminton and I've got no complaints. But it's true that all I've done pretty much is badminton. I didn't get interested in music or anything like that when I was a teenager because there was time only for sport.

"I didn't stay on at school because I was playing so much and at that age you're enjoying it all. You go along with it, you don't think much beyond the next game. It might seem young to be going but I've been involved for a long time. At the moment I wonder where I found time to play but it isn't easy to know what to do or what I can do."

It may or may not be a consolation that she is not alone. Most of the sports bodies in Britain are aware that they have responsibilities to players which go beyond sport. It is one thing to call for the training of an elite, another to ensure they are not channelled into playing the game at which they excel to the exclusion of all extra-curricular activity and interest.

Garth Crooks, former striker with five league clubs and now a man of many parts including broadcaster and administrator, has stepped across the hole at the end of his playing career and come out on the other side. But that and his role as chairman of the Institute of Professional Sport allow him to recognise the perils of retirement: "Too many former players come to giving up playing and just go out of their game. It's as if that's it. This means two losses, to the individual and to the sport they have played. The IPS is trying to dispense advice which will stop this happening."

While badminton does not count strictly as a professional sport in Britain because nobody gets paid enough and television has not taken it to its bosom, it still possesses a world-wide tournament circuit and top exponents, such as Humby, put in professional hours.

"We have been lobbying for players during the course of their careers to be encouraged to be able to give something back after they've finished," said Crooks.

"It's hard but I do believe that we are being listened to by the government and other sports bodies. We want people to be helped to obtain what amounts to an all-round degree in their sport. We must stop wasting our resources. Other countries don't."

At the Sports Council and the Central Council for Physical Recreation, the umbrella body for most national sports associations, they also recognise that sportsmen can be too easily cast aside. This is but one reason why Jenny Stokes, in the SC's lottery unit, is excited by the impending announcement that pounds 30m is shortly to be directed towards helping talented sportsmen.

"There will be four projects in all involving playing and coaching," she said, "two to be announced in November and two more early next year. These are opportunities that haven't come along before." Opportunities to help elite sportsmen not only while they are playing but afterwards.

Nigel Hooke, the technical services director of the CCPR, was similarly upbeat. "I know what happens. We expect them to go and get gold medals and all that and then what are they going to do? It's happened across all sports but at least the issue is now being addressed. We must hope that our elite players can be assisted in continuing with their education, maybe take five years to do a four-year course so they can fit both things in and come away with a wider perspective on life."

All of which might have been music to the ears of Alison Humby. She has no regrets but, happy soul though she may be, she is also clearly disillusioned. She has found it increasingly difficult to stay motivated, has therefore found it harder to sustain consistent form and is a little confused. For the moment she is frustrated at being a sports-centre receptionist in Southampton although grateful to the job's flexibility and location which permitted her the long training hours necessary.

"I'm taking a diploma in fitness training and hopefully that'll lead somewhere but nobody's given me much advice," she said. "A few people have asked if I'll return but I'm not missing playing."

Perhaps Humby might have been encouraged to continue - at her tender age there must still have been scope for improvement. Perhaps she might have been advised of existence beyond playing badminton even if it only meant teaching it. She could yet come back as a player, but for the moment that big hole looms.