An athlete or an aesthete?

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If I offered you a career at the age of 20, but told you that by the time you were 35, or even younger, you’d be forced to find a new one entirely, you’d more than likely tell me you weren’t interested. Those of us who are fortunate enough to leave this venerable institution with a degree will most likely set off on a path that we’ll follow until our retirement, but across the country and across the world there’s an exception to this rule.

Sportsmen and women perhaps have the shortest life spans of any profession, if we take Macaulay Culkin out of the equation that is. The average age of retirement for a professional footballer in Great Britain is 35, the point at which most of us would be in the early stages of our careers. The question is, with this being the case, is it reasonable for highly paid and highly valuable sportspeople to prepare for life about sporting death by heavily promoting themselves in the prime of their sporting lives?

Perhaps the most obvious and most recent example of this is Tom Daley. Ah Tom Daley. Most girls aren’t even reading this anymore. I’ve said ‘Tom Daley’ and their heads have begun to tilt to the side, their mouths slightly open, their mind wandering. I hate Tom Daley because I have no reason to hate him. He’s successful, he’s personable and girls love him. In fact, he’s everything my mum wants me to be. And after the last couple of years, you can’t help but imagine he’s also very, very rich.

But criticism of Britain’s golden boy has recently been raining in from the leading authorities in British Diving as Daley embarks on his latest celebrity escapade, playing a major role in ITV’s latest, and frankly horrendous, Saturday prime time show ‘Splash’. Head of British Swimming David Sparkes has said: “Tom is an incredibly talented young man, but he’s yet to achieve his full potential and it’s only going to get harder to achieve that Olympic gold medal as he gets older.” In drawing comparisons with the Chinese athletes who dominate the sport, Sparkes noted that they certainly won’t have “such distractions from training”. But is this reasonable? All sportspeople have a lifespan and Daley, and his agent, are acutely aware of this. Can we really condemn someone who has all the right talents to exploit our celebrity culture for doing so?

I see very little problem with what Tom is doing now. He’s just completed the most gruelling summer of his life, and he’s now an 18 year old boy with the world at his feet. We’d be wrong to say that we wouldn’t reach out and grab it if we had the chance. The question is, is Sparkes right in worrying that Daley may be about head the same way as some other well-known sporting faces, from the brink of glory to the obscurity of D-List Celebdom? A certain Miss Anna Kournikova might have something to say about that.

It’s at this point I have now lost the attention of the men. You’re sitting there, flicking through this article while eating lunch, and one man has now turned to the other and said: ‘Ooh remember Anna Kournikova?’ before that man nod of approval is exchanged. I also haven’t just brought her up here so that I had the opportunity to google her, honest. Wimbledon finalist in 1997 at the age of just 16, Kournikova had the makings of a future grand slam champion. Few would have predicted that it would have been her best ever result. Not only was her career blighted by injury, but by fame. Her looks immediately caught the attention of the media and she was plastered on billboards across the world, advertising everything from sports bras to trainers. We cannot see it as a coincidence that her rising fame outside of tennis, coincided with a dramatic drop in performance within the sport.

There are countless other examples of sports men and women who have become worldwide celebrities as a result of their actions outside their chosen field who have had flourishing careers, with David Beckham springing to mind as the most obvious. It seems that it is all about timing and scale. As an 18 year old boy, perhaps Tom Daley should hold back a little. While his brand is now clearly a hot seller, he has the chance to be defined by sporting greatness. For any devoted sportsperson this should be their ultimate goal.

Having examined all the facts, I’m now going to do what a historian does best, and sit on the fence. If I had the opportunity to do what Tom Daley is currently doing, would I? Probably. If I were Tom Daley’s coach would I be annoyed about what he is currently doing? Probably.  Put it this way, I wouldn’t like to see the look on my tutor’s face if I told him he’d have to hold on for one of my essays, because I was too busy shooting another episode of my upcoming TV series. Although saying that, perhaps a show called ‘The Olden Maze’, in which I teach minor celebrities about the Anglo-Saxons and then make them answer questions on the topic in order to escape the terror-inducing labyrinth which I have had constructed, might be a slightly more lucrative career path than my history degree. 

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