Bowing Out – A Sportsperson’s Retirement

retirement-plushenko

Russian figure skater Evgeni Plushenko was today forced to retire from the men’s singles program. The 31 year-old – one of the icons of the sport – complained of spinal pains earlier in the week, after helping Russia secure gold earlier in the team competition.

Plushenko’s exit from the men’s singles event was dramatic. He took to the rink to warm up, holding his lower back in visible pain. He attempted various jumps and spins, but struggled to pull them off, eventually liasing with his coaching team before announcing his withdrawal to the judges. Although he is yet to officialy retire, Plushenko was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying “this was not how I wanted to end my career”. “For now I need a very big rest, ” he said.

Plushenko’s injuries and plateauing scores represent a familiar tale when it comes to sport: an elite athlete, after years at the top of their pecking order, experiences diminishing returns. Their constant physical exertions take a toll, causing further problems and an eventual, expected retirement announcement.

The familiarity of this narrative, though, doesn’t make it any less painful. Ian Thorpe’s tumultous career of highs and lows is indicative of this. After winning five Olympic gold medals, Thorpe retired from swimming in 2006. Four years later, though, he announced a comeback geared at the 2012 London Olympics. The media salivated at this prospect: the wonder-kid reclaiming his place as Australia’s king of swimming.

However, the height of expectations seemingly proved too much; Thorpe failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. This process was the subject of an insightful 2012 ABC documentary. Thorpe re-retired in the middle of 2013. However, he has continued to attract media attention – most recently for being admitted to rehab after a ‘dazed and confused’ episode in his parents’ southern Sydney neighbourhood.

retirement-waughHappily, not all retirement stories are quite so fraught with difficulty and pain. Cricket, for example, is ripe with happy end-of-career stories. Steve Waugh, then serving as the captain of Australia’s cricket team, bowed out in 2003. He ended his run in front of a home crowd, and referenced the mixed emotions that are sure to come with ending such a successful career. Glenn McGrath also managed to finish with dignity, taking a wicket with the last ball of his career.

These case studies all serve as food for thought: is it better for athletes to retire relatively early, at the top of their game with their dignity well and truly intact? Or should they fight, on Lleyton Hewitt style, earning the ‘veteran’ tag and forging a stronger place in the minds of sports fans? It’s safe to assume that, in pondering such a decision, logic and emotion will have to battle it out. There are cautionary tales related to both avenues, with neither resolutely better than the other.

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