A Sporting Mid-Life Crisis

A few things combined this week in my lazy summer of watching sport to leave me feeling older than I am.

Twenty-one’s quite young to be set upon by that kind of thing, and I’m hardly going through a two decades premature mid-life crisis, but I had a palpable sense of a shift in how I watch sport.

The first thing that threw me was the Olympics. Now, this is by no means my abiding memory of the games – they were, as everyone has agreed, sublime, and that’s what will stay with me in years to come – but I couldn’t quite escape how bloody young everyone was.

Praise be to the venerable Nick Skelton, who nabbed an equestrian gold medal at 54, but everywhere else I looked there was blinding youth. Laura Trott and Philip Hindes, two of Team GB’s golden cyclists, are 20 and 19 respectively.

Taekwondo gold medallist Jade Jones only turned 19 in March. Lawrence Okoye the discus finalist – who for the sake of Division 2’s rugby players I hope defers his place at St. Peter’s another year to concentrate on athletics – is himself 20.

Watching Trott and Hindes bopping away to Taio Cruz’s Dynamite during the closing ceremony, looking for all the world like they were freshers in Bridge Bar & Club was all a bit much for me.

The next sporting reckoning was writing a piece about England’s chances in the forthcoming under-19 cricket World Cup. Not quite the ticket to make you feel sprightly. Researching tyros from Kent, Somerset prodigies and, most depressingly, an extremely talented lad from my home county of Essex, I began to feel like twenty-one may as well have been twice that.   

There was more. Earlier today in the Test match, during the lunch break, Sky showed an interview with England captain Andrew Strauss, who’s celebrating his 100th Test.

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The producer spliced this with footage of his century, on debut, in 2004. Remembering exactly where I was when that happened, and then realising that it had been eight years ago, was chastening.

When Strauss retires in a year or so there’ll be no remnants left of the England team I grew up watching – Gough and Caddick, Butcher, Hussain, Thorpe, Trescothick and Vaughan – and that seems odd still.

Who better to ask about all of this than my old man? The last time his contemporaries were making their England debuts was during the Cuban missile crisis, so it’s fair to say he’s gone through this a few times before.

Surely he would soothe my woes. “Don’t be daft,” he said. “It’s not like you ever had any chance whatsoever of playing professional sport, so I don’t see why it matters.” This is true, as far as it goes – though no marks for softening the blow – but it’s not quite what I was getting at. So I put my thinking cap on, and this is the best I’ve come up with:

When you’re younger than the sportsmen you’re watching then it’s true: as the Bowie song that LOCOG has played day after day and night after night would have it they’re heroes, examples to be emulated on and, if you credit the puritans who’d have had George Best on nicotine patches and Shloer, off the pitch. 

In 2003 children of our age wanted to be Jonny Wilkinson, or Thierry Henry. (Most kids of our age that is. I wanted to be Jason Leonard, or Tony Adams, two thoroughly unglamorous heroes but heroes all the same).

By the time you get older than the new stars, your relationship with sport has changed. I have no hopes of emulating Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. He’s a player to be admired, in a more abstract sense that’s different but not worse than my seven-year-old adulation of Marc Overmars.

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The sportsmen at the top of their games while you grew up will retain a special status, but the fact that Agassi and Sampras were titans when I was ten doesn’t mean I can’t stand back and appreciate that men’s tennis in 2012 is an extraordinary feast of sport, as captivating as anything I’m likely to see in my lifetime.

So for now I’m relaxed again. Although my dad did have a bit more to say. “And anyway,” he added, “just you wait until the ones younger than you retire themselves. That’s being old.” Now that’s a thought that’s going to fester.