Golden oldies or over the hill?
Is sporting excellence only for the young fit and beautiful? How does age figure in the taxonomy of sporting success? At the prestigious Open golf championship at Royal Birkdale on the weekend of July 20th 2008, it was not the absence of the world famous Tiger Woods, winner of 14 major golfing tournaments and reputedly the highest paid athlete in the world in 2007, that raised most comment, but the successful presence of the Australian Greg Norman. Victory ultimately went to the Irish, defending champion, Padraig Harrington, but the final contest was billed as ’legend’ (Norman, aged 53, who last won the Open 15 years ago) versus ‘champion’ (Harrington, aged 37).
Greg Norman at the tee
Norman’s almost fairytale finish generated a burst of journalistic comment on the dignity of age, embodied in the inspiration afforded by the sporting competence allied to the grace and charm of Greg Norman. This was contrasted with 50 year-old Sandy Lyle who dropped out after only ten holes in the first round, complaining (in the tradition of grumpy old men) of cold hands.
Age could be part of the mix in the celebration of sporting success. It’s true that playing golf, even at championship level, may still be a sport more associated with older players. Before getting too excited about the challenge to discrimination on grounds of age, it has to be noted that much is made of Norman’s active, positive approach to his golf and success in the rest of his life including being accompanied by a new wife, Chris Evert, whose own former sporting success as a tennis star is now subordinated to her new role.
However, golf is not the only sport where there are at least some indications that sporting excellence is not confined to the young. The Slovenian sprinter, Merlene Ottey is attempting to qualify for her eighth Olympics at the age of 48. The US swimmer Dara Torres has qualified for Beijing at the age of 41, even though many thought she would retire after her gold medal at Sydney in 2000. Having a child in 2006 may have increased Torres’s competitive spirit and led her to reinstate her commitment to sporting success.
Sport in the public arena is always about the making of legends and if they can be made on grounds of age democratic principles still apply. Sporting success against the odds has a long history, and forms an important strand in the making of sports stories. The representation of age is complex and closely tied up with physical competence, the specificities of the sport and other cultural and social factors, including different aspects of social exclusion and divisions. However, the comeback, based on physical excellence and determination, has a powerful resonance. This can combat the economic desperation of the come-back, as has so often featured in boxing, when age is represented as failure.
There is the stuff of legend, but age for the comeback is often coded as sad and pathetic. Sugar Ray Robinson could not surmount the curse of the comeback and Muhammad Ali, in his last fight against Larry Holmes, was a sorry spectacle. There may be something in sticking to golf, although when it is at the other end of the age spectrum, as in the case of Michelle Wie competing with men at the PGA, her youth at 18, as well as her gender, may be seen as a disadvantage.