Are we missing out when athletes at the top retire?

Like Federer, Serena is 41 and is considered by many to be the sport’s greatest of all time. Their playing days may be behind them, but everyone remains a global icon, and global icon status is a bit like a Supreme Court appointment: once you’ve got it, it’s your job for life. It’s also a lucrative one. The idea that a top athlete might be worth more money in retirement than he is when he’s active isn’t exactly new — Arnold Palmer’s career golf earnings totaled $2 million, while the bulk of his estimated $700 million net worth dollars was earned through endorsements long after its competitive days were over – But in a world crazy for both content and heroes, the stakes for a narratively smart ending feel higher than ever. Legacy building cannot be left to chance. Federer has already been the focus of several documentaries; Williams was chronicled in a five-part HBO series, and her youth was portrayed alongside that of her sister in last year’s Oscar-winning dramatization King Richard. The incentive to take the leap from player to personality while still standing next to the winning circle is immense.

It wasn’t always like that – far from it. The margins of sports history are littered with specters like the aging Johnny Unitas, helplessly playing the strings as the San Diego Charger, and Willie Mays, aging as the New York Met. No full biography of either man will ever be written without a significant reference to those sad and grueling years in which they burned chunks of their legacy for a few final paychecks and a shot at flattery — the part where the great man left the field , orders his body to perform the old heroic deeds and is repeatedly betrayed by that “ravage of time”.

Personally, I’m ambivalent about the much tidier departures of today’s greats. I kind of miss the tragic model. For the aging athlete, to keep struggling even when your physical abilities are beginning to fail is in some ways a noble act of self-denial, a surrender of personal vanity, a repayment of the karmic debt of your natural abilities. We as a society are currently at the interface of modern medicine, baby boomer vivacity and magical thinking, wallow in adult-youth fantasies of eternal youth and wave to the threatening passage of time. If sport is a metaphor for life – and it’s better that way, for all the time it takes – I wonder if we’re not doing ourselves a disservice in a way by watching our heroes with a grace note say goodbye. parts of life become ugly; Injuries, losses and defeats come to all of us. Witnessing in real time the humiliation of great athletes – and seeing them endure it with dignity and determination even as the results push them further and further from former glory – could be one of the great things sport has to teach us.

In these last few months, a miracle happened that divided the difference. Albert Pujols is 42 and in his 22nd season of major league baseball. For the first 10 years of that career, he was basically Babe Ruth — a thug with such generational talent it strained gullibility. He went from pretty good to mediocre to downright bad in his second 10 years, and many commentators noted how sad it was to see a once-perfect batsman collapse. And yet Pujols persevered, making his way as a bencher with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being fired from another team and eventually returning to his original team, the St. Louis Cardinals, for another year. It was essentially a sentimental gesture.

But then something strange happened: he got really, really good again. His momentum locked. He started hitting home runs at his early career rate, surpassing 700 for his career, a huge benchmark in baseball. He led his team to a division title. It all came out of nowhere, the most romantic possible outcome for a player who – in the eyes of many people – served as a cautionary tale, an argument to fold while things are going well.