Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Why Great Athletes Don't Stay Great

Thanks to David Epstein, we have a good idea of what makes athletes (even sled dogs) great ; the question I'd like to understand better is this:

What causes great athletes to cease being great?

Last night I watched the once god-like Federer fall out of the U.S. Open in three straight sets.  Announcers struggled to explain his decline: has he slowed? is he injured? is he distracted? is he still hungry?  Federer hadn't lost a set in the previous rounds, and yet here he was, losing badly to Obredo who, in 10 previous matches, had never managed to take a single set.

Federer's grace in play remains: the buttery smooth backhand, the drop shots that seem to fall on sand, the face without struggle, and even the hairy chest bared between sets to exchange Nike garb poetically folded in neat courtside ensemble.

Above all, remaining composed.  Federer, like compatriot Cancellara,  is pro.
Drop shot
And yet last night his play was awful.  Almost as many unforced errors as winners.  At crucial moments when, in the past, his play became even more elevated, yesterday he collapsed, for instance, losing 14 of 16 break points against an opponent he'd never not absolutely humiliated.

It leads one to doubt whether Federer's grace was an essential part of his game, or simply another thing.  As David Foster Wallace put it in comparing Federer with God:
You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.
No longer.

Federer is still an aesthetic pleasure to watch, but unfortunately there's the part about results; no one pays any money to watch a guy change shirts and wear hats with a nice RF insignia on them.
Federer Forehand
Federer is only 32.

"It looks like Federer doesn't want to be out there," remarked John McEnroe when the end neared.  Nothing in Federer's demeanor gave it away, but McEnroe, I'd guess, has some understanding of what it feels to fall from sublimity at a relatively young age.

Federer's play was once described as a "religious experience"--a sublime one.  Now it is merely a reminder of the fragility of greatness and of the extraordinary.

No one wants to read about or watch that, by the way.  Watching Federer as merely good is disheartening, just as is watching Tiger grind it out to merely be among the world's best.

This is a shame, because the mystery of decline is greater than the mystery of rise.  Physical decline explains very little of it.  Consider a parallel question:  why do musicians worsen after 40?  Bands mostly come and go.  Clearly, they can still move their fingers and sing.  Yet their music inevitably begins to decline, and they become their own best cover bands.

The loss of musical and athletic genius somehow happens to all the greats, and sometime before 40.  Something happens beyond the failure of the body, and for the world's greatest, that thing that happens can be a mere ghost, the slightest hint of loss.  Yet it certainly makes all the difference, to fall from best in the world to merely "among the best."

It may be merely the first tick of the downward slope of decrepitude.  It may be merely the accumulation of injuries.  It may simply be fatigue, mental and physical, with the struggle to maintain something that is as rare as 1 in 7.108 billion.

If the span of our lives is short, then the span of greatness is necessarily much shorter.

Meanwhile in the Vuelta a Espana, 41 year old Chris Horner solos away from Nibali, Basso, Purito, and everyone else to win his second stage in the ten days of racing thus far--and take, for the second time, the leader's jersey.  This follows a year of injury and failure for Horner.

No one would call Horner a great of the sport, and there remains the question of whether he doped (and whether he is still doping).  It is harder to do so these days, but I put a glimmer of hope in his achievement, and wish him well, because a victory for him is a victory for all us aging athletes, still hoping for our bodies to somehow surprise us with greatness, despite our years and the inevitability of decline we've seen in others.

If nothing else, there is the road and the bike, and the love of it.  Having been decent or merely good, should we keep pressing, even as we decline?

Anquetil rode a bike only three times from retirement till death, some thirty years.

LeMond didn't touch a bike for twenty years after his career.

I think I'd want to keep riding, but I've never won the Tour or anything significant, so I can't claim to understand the desire to get off two wheels.

This weekend I assembled a crib, a dresser, and a shelf.  I painted the walls of a nursery that will soon be the place where a being that shares half my DNA sleeps and spends his first years.

After it was done I sat in the incredibly heavy rocking chair I'd lugged up the three stories to his room and thought.

Do I wish greatness on him?

Do I want him to be merely decent, like me, at things like bike racing?

Will he, like me, find hope, friendship, and connection in sport?

I couldn't answer these questions.

I hope he fold his shirts right.   I hope he keeps his bike clean.  I hope he presents a calm face to the world.  I hope he bears getting older--both on the up and down side--well.

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