Stories | June 18, 2012

Did you know … the Greek goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias, aged 38, was the oldest player at Euro 2012?

Despite all the recent advances in diet and training, footballers’ careers don’t seem to have got longer.

Most football players still peak between the ages of 27 and 29. The team that wins the football World Cup invariably falls within that age range. This is also the prime age in male sports ranging from baseball through ice hockey to skiing. Female athletes usually peak a couple of years earlier than men.
No matter what athletes do to stay fit, they will start declining even before turning 30. The first thing to go is flexibility, which is why gymnasts tend to be the youngest athletes. Then, from about the late twenties, athletes start losing endurance and muscle power. A footballer at 30 will jump more slowly and less high than before. Reaction times drop too. Strength goes last: muscle and bone mass only start declining in one's thirties. Meanwhile, the injuries picked up over a career take a progressive toll.
The best advice on aging remains: don't do it. The legendary Argentine and Spanish footballer Alfredo di Stefano summed it up: “Only at 20 does your body function perfectly." He is now 85. Few sportsmen earn enough to quit work forever in their mid-thirties. Anyway, doing nothing can lose its charm after a few decades. Most athletes therefore end up seeking second careers. This can be a painful process. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has identified the issue of “Athletic Identity”: the athlete often thinks of himself as the sum of his athletic performances.
When he stops being an athlete, he has to find a new identity. No wonder many ex-athletes struggle with depression, divorce and financial troubles. That’s why the IOC urges Olympians to prepare for a career after sport while they are still competing. In less dramatic form, the rest of us face the same issues. Jobs for life have become rare. Meanwhile, working life is getting longer. Most of us will have to work until our mid- to late-sixties. Like footballers, we should be prepared to have more than one career.
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Simon Kuper

Sports and economics author