There’s no doubting that the retirement decision of newly-crowned world champion Nico Rosberg 24 hours ago came as a bolt out of the blue not only to Formula One but to the world of sport generally.
Judging by the reaction of former greats, pundits and the media generally it seems that most people have respected his decision and been sympathetic, even though many of them – some perhaps thinking more of the potential impact upon Formula One than of the man himself – must be wreaking with an inner sense of disappointment at the fact that such a superstar is bowing out just as he reaches the pinnacle of his sport.
I happen to agree with the majority. Down the years on the Rust we have occasionally touched on the vexed question of whether it is more admirable for an elite sportsman to retire at the top, as Rosberg has done, or alternatively go on for as long as he (or she) feels they can still compete at the top. Before I go on to discuss some of the issues involved I think it is worth emphasising that my current view is that of a sixty-something: I suspect that if I was a teenager or even a twenty-something it might well be different. The individual’s perception is probably affected by the stage in life they have reached.
Let us begin with an obvious same-sport comparison.
Whilst Rosberg has quit immediately upon reaching the peak of his own personal Mount Olympus, the widely-admired Jenson Button has also bowed out – a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday and seven years after he won his one and only Formula One title. For the last six seasons Button has been with McLaren, from 2015 along with former World Champion Fernando Alonso, the pair of them to all intents and purposes ‘just making up the numbers’ because of both the domination of Mercedes and Red Bull at the front of the grid and the lack of competitiveness of the McLaren team at the back.
So here’s the first question. Who’s made the ’better’ decision: Nico Rosberg who, for an apparent variety of reasons including family considerations, has chosen overnight to give up all the money and glamorous celebrity lifestyle that goes with being in Formula One – or Jenson Button, who for the past six years has been trousering a pretty health annual salary (in 2016 a reported US$13 million) for driving around track after track with no hope of winning as the Formula One circus flits its merry way across the globe?
To an extent in all sports, not least in Formula One, it may just be a question of money and longevity. Jenson Button has lasted sixteen seasons in Formula One which isn’t a bad record when you’re hurtling around a track at speeds up to 180 mph and theoretically could be killed at any moment and presumably, reaction-speeds being at a premium, (as in all sports) it’s relatively-speaking a young man’s game.
Typing as an old man with a modest lifestyle, I can see how the prospect of continuing to enjoy the Formula One merry-go-round in my thirties, whilst picking up a guaranteed salary of anything north of US$3 million – never mind US$13 million – per annum (irrespective of results) for a few years past my peak, might well be attractive in terms of securing the financial future of myself and those closest to me. Who could possibly blame Button for taking such a decision? I certainly don’t.
On the other hand – here taking into account the combination of outstanding natural ability and then years of ball-breaking hard work, plus of course the huge amount of sheer random good fortune, that it takes to reach the very top of a global sport these days – once you’ve achieved the ultimate goal in town by winning the world title or its equivalent (plus its attendant permanent place in history), by which time you’ve probably also already earned enough money to live very comfortably indeed for the rest of your life, what’s the point in carrying on?
There’s a difference between sports, inevitably and understandably, as regards longevity.
If you take swimming and gymnastics, for example, for both sexes it would seem that generally the peak years are brief, maybe between the ages of 16 and 24. Examples of gold medal winners in their thirties are very few and far between. If you’re an elite performer in either of these, one could understand how ‘making the most of it’ financially is an urgent imperative – even if you’re demonstrably falling off the pace in your last season or so.
On the other hand, looking at the bright side with a sport like golf – for all the challenges it currently faces as a five-hour daily outing in a brave new world of increasing ‘short but sweet’ sporting events – you’re probably talking of a lucrative potential twenty to thirty year elite career (assuming you can make the grade), once you’ve taken into account the Majors, the various continent ‘Tours’ and then of course the ‘Seniors’ tournaments you can still play once you’ve reached the age of fifty.
I always admired tennis great Bjorn Borg for retiring at the age of 26 after winning five Wimbledon titles.
He’d not just done a ‘Rosberg’ (reached the top and had enough), he’d proved he could do it over again and again, and once he’d hit five Wimbledons, what more was there to achieve? It was going to be downhill at some point.
By the same token, I currently worry about Usain Bolt. He’s done the Olympic gold medal ‘triple-triple’ – a feat which will probably never be equalled – and (now 30) it cannot be getting any easier in what is an archetypal ‘fast-twitch muscles’ set of events. He’s carrying on until at least the World Championships next year – what harm (if any) might it do to his legacy if he were to come just second … or even third or fourth … in some or all of his target events in 2017?
Then there’s the ‘But it’s what I do’ factor.
A good example here that I’ve quoted before is that of footballer Jimmy Greaves. He once took part in an edition of the television programme This Is Your Life at the age of about 37 or 38, by when he was playing for lowly Brentford. Not long afterwards I met a production executive who had chatted at length with him. I asked why on earth was Greaves still playing when way past his best – he was risking tarnishing his own reputation. I was told the very subject had been raised in conversation and Greaves’ response had been simple and poignant: “But playing football is what I do. If I can’t get into the Brentford first team, I’d happily play in the second …”
Without doubt there exist athletes who – by dint of their diminutive IQ and/or just their primeval desire to compete and prevail – are hard-wired to give their all to their chosen sport without regard for the consequences, which they allow to take care of themselves.
I’m thinking here of boxing in particular. Its history is awash with participants who have gone on way beyond their prime and therefore by definition beyond the point at which the sport was doing them potentially irreparable harm.
I mentioned at the outset of this piece that my views were probably coloured by my vintage and I’m convinced I’m right on this.
One of the facts of life – hard though it may be to come to terms with – is mortality. And the speed at which the span of a human life flies by. If we knew in advance how long each of us was going to live, not only would life itself probably be easier to plan and live, but we’d probably make different decisions about what we did and when, these based primarily upon that knowledge of when our time would come.
Thinking in the abstract, without regard to my life span, by nature I’m a Nico Rosberg. Once I’d achieved the Everest of my sport, my immediate inclination would be to retire, simply because (my hunch is) no feeling of triumph and jubilation could ever exceed that of winning the ultimate prize for the first and perhaps only time. Plus – here’s my sixty-something age coming in – there are so many other things in life to enjoy.
Conversely, if I had been the 26 year-old Bjorn Borg but had also known in advance that I was going to die at thirty, I might have been tempted to go on striving for greater immortality whilst I still could.
The dilemma, of course, is that it is a fundamental of human nature that we regard ourselves as immortal until something comes along that forces us to confront the truth.