When the moment has gone an awful truth has to be realised

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The Independent Online
The suggestion that Nigel Benn was contemplating a return to the professional ring in his 35th year after 14 months of retirement was a wincing reminder that athletes must confront two deaths.

At an age when many of their generation are newly confident and rising in other fields, they realise an awful truth. The moment has gone. Mortality embraces them.

Nothing can hold back the relentless passage of time, the curse of anticlimax that may well have caused Benn to dwell on the idea of coming back, seeking the advice of his former trainer, Jimmy Tibbs, as reported this week in the Daily Mail and denied yesterday on television.

What we have to remember is that nothing arrives in an athlete's life to replace the roar of the crowd, the comradeship, the tingle of anticipation. Great sports performers come and go, generation by generation, everlastingly famous and yet made sad by physical decline. "Enjoy it while you can," Matt Busby said to those who made up his teams at Manchester United. "There is nothing like playing but it doesn't last for ever."

How many old sports performers, even those whose talent was wickedly exploited, regret accepting the gift too lightly? "It didn't bother me for quite a while," a once famed international footballer said a short while ago. "I'd settled down, got myself set up in business and there are a lot of happy times to look back on. But then I became depressed. I felt betrayed. Why did it all end so quickly?"

Most come through the difficulty of adjustment displaying no trace of sourness. The cavorting symbol of England's victory in the 1966 World Cup final, Nobby Stiles faced up to the dilemma of life without football after losing his job on the coaching staff at Old Trafford. "I'd been in the game since leaving school and didn't how I'd cope," he said when we spoke last week at a function in London. Stiles is now in demand as an after-dinner speaker, his sunny disposition unaffected.

Others realise that they only felt safe within the boundaries of play. In the greater world they become victims, unable to take on the realities from which they were shielded. Nostalgia sets in and for some there is no escape, no perfect remedy.

The sports stars of 60 years ago were, in the main, Depression men. Many, perhaps the majority, had known unemployment, felt hunger, seen breadlines. They had been raised in cramped houses and the options before them were spare. They could look for work except there was not any work to find. Sport enabled them to transcend fate.

Times have changed and in many games the rewards are immense. But today's heroes are all destined to become yesterday's men, fading into comparative obscurity unless paid to pass on their knowledge. Not much sympathy will be held out to young people who are now making millions from sport, but those millions will only soften the blow, not make it easier to satisfy an exaggerated ego.

Nobody exemplifies this more than Sugar Ray Leonard, next to Muhammad Ali the most dazzlingly effective of modern boxing champions who exceeded more than $100m (pounds 60m) in ring earnings alone.

There must be many people who find it hard to credit that Leonard is prepared to risk his health and a debasement of fame against another relic, Roberto Duran, who can at least claim the excuse of financial imperative. What they fail to understand is that Leonard, like many fighters before him, goes on past his time in a sad attempt to defer the inevitable.

Across the past decade big-time sport has become an explosive growth industry. That does not mean simply, as some have suggested, that rich sports persons all become complacent. It does mean that many have to work longer and harder and so may wear out sooner.

Fearing the worst, even the most intelligent and far-seeing sports performers flinch from the prospect of retirement, refusing subconsciously to accept the harsh evidence of deterioration. "I quit too soon," you hear them say as Danny Blanchflower did many years after being embarrassed in his final appearance for Tottenham Hotspur.

The probable truth about Benn is that he was tempted, changing his mind only when confronted by anxious relatives. The trick for every athlete is to understand that life is not shaped like a sports arena.