Searching for life after sport

Pete Sampras...a tough transition - PHOTO: AP

Pete Sampras...a tough transition - PHOTO: AP  

Till a year or so ago, Jonah Lomu, rugby's celebrated steamroller without brakes, had difficulty walking because of a kidney disease. Having been donated a kidney, now he wants to come back. In a way this is appealing. The new kidney allows Lomu to live with dignity, but sport sustains him.

But it also brings into focus the larger and bleak issue of some athletes' inability to often find contentment beyond sport. It reinforces the idea that they will go to extraordinary lengths to return to a playing field, as if it is only there they find deliverance. It is as if they know nothing else.

Australian sports psychologist Sandy Gordon wonders, does the rugby star, for instance, think: "Jonah Lomu is what? I am a rugby player, what else am I, what else can I do?" There is a fear of loss of identity.

We cannot say for sure with Lomu, but athletes, including Indian cricketers, have often struggled to find meaningful lives once the siren calls on their careers. Some retain their connection through coaching, or commentating, but it is an opportunity limited to few. All their lives have been structured into pulling on a shirt and performing, and then, one morning, the cheering stops and there is nowhere to go. It can be devastating.

Javagal Srinath, who has taken a positive approach to retirement, admits "there is a void" and said he has seen people "living in past glories."

A retired Pete Sampras last year told Tennis magazine: "It's a tough transition, going from being so focused to the opposite. And it wasn't a gradual thing, like if you've worked for 30 years, and you're 60 years old and planning on retiring. This is like, OK, your life stopped."

Sampras said he understands why athletes make comebacks. Money is not necessarily the issue, the limelight is. On the field is the only place where some men find validation.

Retired athletes are in the prime of their lives, late 20s, mid-30s yet often inadequately prepared for the transition to the real world.

Social rejection

Gordon says some former cricketers don't even know how to book an aeroplane ticket. It is tragic, not amusing. Suddenly hotels must be paid for, sponsors put you on hold, teammates are busy, and your autograph is not quite as precious. Social rejection is common, for the retired athlete is abruptly less valued, and finding new lives as meaningful can be hard.

Sporting bodies must teach players to grow as people not just as athletes, but most organisations mostly live in the here and now, for them athletes come and go. Still, Cricket Australia has some systems in place to assist retiring players, extending help through counselling or even simple acts like how to fill up a resume.

But few resources are available in India to support athletes make this brutal transition. Appointing former players as mentors to reveal to present players the particular problems they faced would be a useful start.

As fans we worship the athlete, but once he exits the stage he is washed from the mind, replaced by other heroes. We move on. But forgotten heroes sometime never do.

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