We may be just days away from seeing the last of Serena Williams in competitive tennis. The US Open, which starts next week, is marked out as the retirement party for the greatest tennis star of the modern era.
At 40 years old, she’s late to step away from elite sport and does so with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $260m. But for all her plans of evolution protected by this financial cushion, Williams is still likely to feel a long time retired.
Williams is one of the two greatest athletes I have had the privilege to see excel in the flesh. The other, Usain Bolt, has already slipped from view in the five years since retirement from the athletics track.
Bolt’s football dream proved short-lived and the Virgin ads don’t run on TV anymore. Let’s hope we need have no fears for his wellbeing, nor any for Williams either.
What, though, of the less financially secure athletes who we revere during their short bursts of success? Do we have any societal responsibility to look to their future?
I’ve enjoyed watching the BBC ring the changes to its roster of pundits at the European Championships just ended in Munich and Rome. New faces have brought a bit more bite, fresher insight, welcome rawness.
Richard Kilty, the former world indoor sprint champion who is never shy to express opinions with conviction, stood out. There’s a future in the studio for Kilty surely when he takes retirement. But his appearances last week are a reminder that the route into punditry is as the camel to the needle’s eye. Experts endure and vacancies are, consequently, scarce.
Retired footballers were always said to turn their hands to running pubs or retraining as electricians or plumbers if they didn’t come from such professions in the first place, as in the case of Stuart Pearce.
Wikipedia is a useful if unreliable source of answers to the perennial ‘where are they now?’ musings of fans. Only genuine club legends can rely on warm memories to sustain a relationship with the club that marked out their career, and the high throughput of players creates a similar supply-demand imbalance as in the punditry stakes.
Now, at the top end of the game, the financial rewards in football are higher and opportunities for retirement planning more extensive. But success and a big bank balance do not guarantee happiness. Not least because players are heavily reliant on their entourages and agents for advice which is unlikely to prove disinterested – remember the long line of bankrupted champion boxers, bilked and milked by their hangers-on.
Might clubs do more to help? Yes, but interests diverge the minute a player’s contract expires as he then becomes someone else’s problem – perhaps simply his own.
If most professional sports are pure capitalist environments in which the best thrive and the rest struggle to survive, with all participants at least theoretically aware of what they are risking, what of those sports that society chooses to make professional through public funding?
You might deem that golfers, cricketers, footballers, tennis and rugby players can be left to fend for themselves in retirement having taken their chances. But how about the Olympians and Paralympians who have effectively been paid by the lottery and exchequer to perform for our enjoyment and collective national pride?
The longer Britain’s list of medallists has grown, the more extensive the number of athletes who come to realise that a medal, even a gold one, is no passport to future financial security. A gold-painted post box in your hometown does not pay the bills.
The nation’s focus, sharpened by the media, is on only a handful of Olympians and fewer Paralympians still. That was evident again last week in the prominence of Dina Asher-Smith’s failure to win gold in the 200m in Munich relative to teammates who actually won their events. The stirring runs by Laura Muir and Zharnel Hughes appeared lower down some reports, inadvertently underlining Asher-Smith’s rare crossover celebrity status.
Earlier this month five alpine skiers learned that their funding from UK Sport was being cut as the agency looked to other snow sport disciplines to fulfil its ambitions. I’m sceptical of the value of pumping lottery funds into the Winter Olympics, but have great sympathy for the five as the £800,000 they are looking to raise is a very big ask in the current commercial marketplace.
It’s easy to sell a dream to an aspiring young athlete. Far harder to persuade them to look at the risks of their career decision amidst the excitement of early success, particularly when public cash appears to endorse their potential.
But it need not be any less ambitious to ensure parallel paths are planned from the outset of careers rather than when they near their end and retirement looms – especially as that end can come suddenly and brutally.
Goldie Hawn takes the 5th
Britain’s modern pentathletes will lose their funding if the sport can’t agree on a replacement discipline to replace showjumping, which is being dropped after Paris 2024.
And if the sport can’t then resell itself to an increasingly sceptical International Olympic Committee, which is eyeballing pentathlon’s rock-bottom standings in its global TV audience stats.
The athletes are mutinous (and simultaneously proposing changes to preserve riding), and it’s no surprise when you watch footage of the obstacle races that are being trialled as an alternative. The gallery on the international governing body’s website even includes a headshot of someone dressed as Spiderman.
All rather ridiculous to my eyes and a long way from the sport’s origins as an all-round test of an army officer’s abilities. It looks more like Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin. Watch here.
Wednesday’s child is full of woe
I was at the opening two days of the first Test between England and South Africa last week. Both times with newcomers to five-day cricket.
Although England were rolled over while pursuing their current aggressive tactics, seeing the occasion through my newbie companions’ eyes was a reminder of just how special a Lord’s Test experience is.
Who, though, decided on a Wednesday start for the match? England’s pasting left the ground empty for the weekend. Not a great look for the sport.
Next year, a five-Test Ashes series will be done and dusted by the end of July as the England and Wales Cricket Board continues, nonsensically, to nurture The Hundred – not just at the expense of county cricket, but now it seems the game’s pinnacle product too.
The exact match dates have yet to be announced. Too late no doubt for The Hundred to take a step back, but please can Thursday or Friday test starts be made sacrosanct?!
As for Test cricket globally, the calendar newly published by the International Cricket Council demonstrates just how fast it is sliding down the sport’s priority list. I’ll return to this in a future column. For now, enjoy Old Trafford and the Oval.
Ed Warner is chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby and writes at sportinc.substack.com