What do Carl Froch, Jonny Wilkinson, Brian O’Driscoll, Steve Borthwick, Steven Gerrard and Kumar Sangakkara have in common? All were in high-profile sporting action over the weekend. But, they are also all in their mid-30s, a challenging time for many athletes - least of all because thoughts of retirement are thrust upon them.
Wilkinson, O’Driscoll and Borthwick did retire after their respective rugby cup finals. The latter were overshadowed by Wilkinson who not only added the French title to Toulon’s European crown the preceding weekend, but is demonstrably adored in France. “Merci, Jonny” was woven into the team jerseys, and the huge French crowd sang “God Save The Queen” in post-match tribute. Incroyable!
Although O’Driscoll and Borthwick may not be the super-humans they once were, it would be churlish to describe them, like Wilkinson, as doing anything other than bowing out at the top. Sangakkara too scored a magnificent Lord’s century, not long after announcing his retirement from the shorter T20 international version of the game.
Froch? You would need to have been on Mars or at the Hay book festival not to know that he delivered the best punch of his career to knock out George Groves before 80,000 at Wembley and a million more on pay-per-view. What did they ask him after the fight: you going to retire, Carl?
As England’s gilded footballers fly out to brave the sun, sea, occasional kick-around, PlayStation FIFA 14 and general boredom of a six-week all-expenses paid trip to Miami and Rio, the “will he retire” hype is well underway for Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Over at the French Open, the tennis genius, Roger Federer, is spending another Paris fortnight wearily fending off retirement questions. He is 32.
Federer may not have heard of Andrew Flintoff, but Ryan Giggs he will know. What would we wish upon the greatest ever player: to quit too soon like Flintoff, or to take advantage of the advances in diet, nutrition, and physical and mental fitness help available to modern-day elite athletes that enabled Giggs to play at the top level aged 40?
Look at Flintoff’s increasingly desperate search for post-cricket purpose: boxing, game shows, talent shows, darts commentary, Morrisons ads. The Celebrity Big Brother house beckoned. If his knees are up to it and he can approach his former standard, then surely it’s better both for the sport and himself that he play on? And, if Froch can land one last giant Las Vegas payday, good luck to him.
Nobody wants to see superstars become parodies of their former selves like later-period Diego Maradona, Muhammed Ali or Bjorn Borg. But, that said, why do we wish to be rid of our heroes so soon? English cricket, having shunned its biggest attraction, Keven Pietersen, needs a successful Flintoff comeback desperately, but not so much as the athlete himself. They are so often lost without the opportunity to express themselves before an adoring public. Look at poor Gazza or George Best.
We need heroes. The trouble is we see ourselves age through them (look at Sir Paul McCartney too). Reflected in them are our fears over waning powers, not growing inner strength and wisdom. We forget that they need us too. Playing on has surely got to be better than a fortnight in the jungle with Ant and Dec.
Stefano Hatfield is editor-in-chief of High50