Once upon a time, when the Olympics were all there was, athletes’ lives revolved around the Olympic cycle. And, in general, athletes had roughly two cycles to accomplish their goals or leave the sport.
That’s because prior to the 1980’s and “professionalism”, when track and field was truly an amateur sport, money was a scarce commodity in track and field. Yes, the best athletes were able to make money by getting paid “under the table”, but for most room and board and some travel expenses were as good as it got.
So, many athletes had to find “real” jobs to supplement their participation in the sport – with training revolving around work schedules. This being a rather difficult way to prolong a career, the majority of athletes had to try and win gold quickly or get out of the sport. As a result, 25 year old athletes were “old” men and women in the world of track and field.
Then in the 80’s the sport became professional. Which meant that one could actually earn money from competing. Payments no longer had to be under the table – though in the very beginning they did have to go into a monitored trust fund. But as things evolved, athletes were able to get paid to compete – some quite handsomely – which enabled athletes to stay in the sport longer.
The early beneficiaries were athletes like Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses, who came along during the late 70’s, were there in the early 80’s when things began to change and were able to compete into the 90’s. Then athletes like Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene were able to take full advantage of fully professional careers that spanned from the 90’s into the New Millennium. All of these athletes were able to compete well past their mid 20’s, Being highly competitive well into their 30’s.
But even as professionalism began to extend careers, during the 90’s we began to see another threat to longevity – injury. Injury has always been a threat to careers. One pulled hamstring and one can go from gold medalist to out of the sport in a heartbeat. The list of athletes whose careers ended on injury notes reads like a who’s who of the sport: Leroy Burrell, Ato Boldon, Bruny Surin, Donovan Bailey, and Kevin Young just to name a few.
So while some were able to extend their careers well into their 30’s others began to break down from the stresses of high level training and competition. Ironically, as the sport has become more prosperous at the top end, that trend of injury has gotten even greater. Look no further than the injury list from just the past couple of seasons as all of the following have been injured – many to the point of requiring surgery.
Liu Xiang, Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, Asafa Powell, Dayron Robles, Kenenisa Bekele, Sanya Richards, Veronica Campbell Brown, Wallace Spearmon, Walter Dix, Jeremy Wariner, Terrence Trammell, Darvis Patton, Nesta Carter, Kerron Stewart, Sherone Simpson, and Xavier Carter.
And this is just a partial list!
Where for a short time we got to see out top athletes compete through two, three, four Olympiads, we are now back to hoping that they can make it through two. Where once the question was whether or not an athlete could survive financially until the next Games, the question has shifted to whether or not he/she can stay healthy until the next Games – or even World Championships in many cases!
The cycle seems to be coming full circle, as the life span of the elite athlete is reversing – and once again 25 year old bodies are getting old. Will we see careers in the future like those of Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis and Merlene Ottey – that span four and five Olympiads and touch on three different decades? Or are we back to careers that cover a couple of Olympics and perhaps five or six years?
The answer may lie in the ability of the body to handle the stress that today’s high level training/competition is putting on these athletes. Because as they run faster, and jump & throw farther the physical breakdowns seem to become more frequent. Leading me to two conclusions.
One is that I don’t think we are going to see the extraordinarily long careers any more. Brilliant careers, yes. But extraordinary marks will come at a sacrifice to longevity as athletes will be more like comets that blaze across the competitive sky as opposed to stars that shine continually for many competitive nights.
My other conclusion is that we may be a lot closer to man’s (and woman’s) physical limits – i.e. records – than many would like to believe. At least without modifying the body itself. Just as the speed of light poses a limit to ultimate speed – one that cannot be exceeded – it would appear that the body itself may have tolerances to stress on muscles, tendons and other parts that cannot be exceeded. Just a thought. But I’m not sure that a 9.00 hundred meters is in the cards for mere mortals.
Of course time will tell whether we see any of Beijing's athletes competing in 2020, or if anyone is running 9.00 in this Millennium. But one thing is certain. In order to accomplish either someone is going to have to figure out how to eliminate the annual triage list from above – or at least reduce it significantly. Because neither can be accomplished without keeping athletes on the track. And right now injury is the 800 pound gorilla in the room.