Better to burn out than to fade away: the Achilles effect – Anna Henderson

There is a belief that an athlete lives two lives; firstly everything that leads up to and includes their sporting career; secondly their life after sport. In that regard every athlete therefore also has two deaths. The cult of modern celebrity has shown the addictive power that fame and adoration can have on an individual – a need to forever be in the spotlight, to be forever young and beautiful – making the end of that first life all the more difficult.

There is an Achilles effect here. Achilles, the Greek warrior synonymous with Trojan War, chose a short glorious life, where his name and deeds would be remembered forever (immortalised in Homer’s The Iliad) over a long fulfilled life, one in which only his children and grandchildren might remember him. Achilles’s glory though was set as the greatest warrior of the greatest war in antiquity; he sits second only to Herakles/Hercules in the pantheon of Ancient heroes. His glory was that in death he remained forever young, old age did not mar his battle prowess or his looks. The immortality of youth was his forever.

This effect is incredibly strong in modern consciousness – consider the examples of Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe and JFK. Perhaps more pertinently would be comparing James Dean to Marlon Brando. The two gave rise to brooding character acting and are both named as icons of American youth movement. Dean died in characteristic fashion, crashing his car, at just 24 – he had just three credited films to his name, most memorably Rebel without a Cause. Brando on the other hand, seen by some as the greatest actor of any generation, would lead a life of excess and controversy, his ego and celebrity eclipsing the genuine grandeur of his acting. For those of the younger generations, who never saw the magnetic appeal of the two men at their height, the image of James Dean remains the young man of Hollywood’s silver age, but the image of Brando is blurred between the tortured soul of On the Waterfront, to the obese and reclusive character of his later years. Death does revert people’s thinking back to the glorious youth but it is not the same…

And what of sportspeople, the warriors of today? Glory on the sports field is now closer to the ancient heroic ideals than what happens on modern battlefields. Over the past few years we have borne witness to sporting greatness, the power of the media and the internet giving us access to each of the great events so we can genuinely say that we saw Usain Bolt clock 9.58. This has made todays athletes celebrities in their own right, in some cases even political personalities. Now their first deaths are there for us all to observe in magnificent HD.

Two in particular come to mind…genuine contenders to be the greatest of all time in their sports, but their greatest achievements are behind them and every failure, every moment of weakness is analysed as the slow decay of time and age takes its toll.

Roger Federer, 17 times Grand Slam champion, who made at least every quarter final of a Grand Slam for 9 years was knocked out in round four at the US Open (where he won 5 in a row once), just two months after leaving Wimbledon in Round 2 (7 times champion).

Sachin Tendulker, the Little Master, 100 international centuries to his name, the leading run scorer and century maker in both Test and One Day cricket. There is talk that a hastily arranged two test series with the West Indies this winter has been done so that Tendulker plays his 200th Test at home in Mumbai – a possibly fitting finale to his career…unlike the 38 test innings he has gone without a century.

Federer and Tendulker are remarkably similar; their achievements established as much in continued excellence as to their text book, effortless technique. Both were childhood prodigies, who could rise to any occasion carrying the hopes of millions of fans. In their later careers they have become statesman-like, shining ambassadors of the sports that they have transcended, nary a controversial moment on the pitch or off for these two reserved family men, who have amassed extraordinary wealth.

And what of that fateful demise. As a fan it hurts to see these greats become mere mortals, to have gloried in their picture perfect moments only to see lesser talents overcome them now. Going out at the top, not clinging to something that has past is often mentioned…but who can make these decisions for these proud competitors? How do you tell a former heavyweight champion that he no longer has the speed, the power, the reactions – that he has become punch-drunk? Once the lights go out and crowds stop cheering your name, where do you focus? Is that second life just a long anti-climax, the pleasant foothills to the once insurmountable heights conquered? Is it any wonder the incredible levels of depression, bankruptcy and drug and alcohol abuse amongst former top athletes?

Federer must know that he can no longer compete with the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray if he cannot even make the quarter finals anymore…similarly if Tendulker, the ultimate run accumulator, cannot scrape a century in 38 innings then the writing is on the wall. Do they truly think they can still compete or maybe they still just love playing? Is it pride preventing them from seeing the truth or perhaps fear that prominence in sport is fickle and short lived, that the next great superstar will break their records? Federer might take a look at Pete Sampras whose Grand Slam record he broke. Sampras won his final title at the US Open in 2002, when many did not even consider him a challenger, he never played a professional match again, content simply with his achievements and to retire to appreciate life and his family.

Both these men have an opportunity unlike most athletes. They will have their two lives but with the first they can have their Achilles moment, going out in glory, without hanging around too long as an also ran. They have the wealth and standing to live extraordinarily great lives, even if the adoration and crowds no longer sing their names. From a sporting and fans point of view we will forever remember that first life, their crowning achievements as young men…but their families will no doubt appreciate their second lives just as much and that is something to aspire to as well.

– Better to burn out than to fade away: the Achilles effect – Anna Henderson


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