Love,” says swimmer Ian Thorpe in the midst of our conversation on comebacks. Love, huh! Sounds a bit trite. But, really, who am I to argue? Anyway, I like him. He’s not your average jock inflated with machismo. He’s built like a lumberjack but designs jewellery. He speaks so articulately he lulls you into feeling he’s unburdening a part of his soul. I like him, this boy probably born in a bathtub, also because of how he swims, an elegant leviathan who moved so smoothly it seemed the waters were respectfully parting to accommodate him.
I’ve come to see him because he’s on a comeback for the 2012 Olympics. Because he’s Thorpe, nine Olympic medals, 11 world championship golds, endless world records. Because this moment, when an older body struggles to obey the commands of a mind that insists greatness can be reclaimed, is infested with so many things: romance, insanity, melancholy, greed, curiosity.
Exceptional athletes defy the natural arrangement of things. They are not in the limitations business but in fact reorder the athletic universe. The comeback, as an idea, is part of this realm of madness. So constantly are barriers being reset, so rapidly does talent arrive globally, that the athlete who does not improve is in effect left behind. So what of the athlete who does not play at all, whose equipment is stored, whose wake-up alarm is stilled, who has cobwebs strung across his inactive competitive mind? What chance can he have? No, wait, how does he dare believe he has a chance?
Water beast: Ian Thorpe failed to reach the 100m butterfly final at the Beijing World Cup short-course meet on Wednesday. Photo by Bryan van der Beek/AP.
Yet they come, this tribe of the undeterred. Comebacks are made from burnout (Kim Clijsters), from illness (Lance Armstrong), from personal distress (Jennifer Capriati), from disgrace (Paolo Rossi), from injury (James Braddock, the Cinderella Man), from anonymity (Roger Milla). But mostly from retirement.
Most comebacks die quietly in a corner of a sports page. But the very fact that some succeed, that Sugar Ray Leonard returned because he just had to have Marvin Hagler and controversially did, must be fuel. But maybe the great athlete doesn’t even need external inspiration. Maybe he’s so sure of his own supremacy, sitting there like Michael Jordan might have, a man of the past, watching the men of the future from his drawing room, his insistent ego telling him: “Man, I can take them”.
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And it is this vanity, boredom, money, challenge, hubris, ambition, all of it sewn together, which drives athletes to return. You’d think the competition itself, the glow which adrenalin brings on the starting blocks, is the attraction and not the pain again of practice. But Thorpe—only further informing us these athletes are odd—disagrees. “I race so I can train,” he says and I think he’s kidding, but I am mesmerized by the words he chooses. “I find a pleasure in repetition. It’s like playing an instrument and I listen to the water.”
For all athletes who once owned their arenas the return must be strange, for they are at once both old champions and new competitors and it must make for a confusing collision. How much do you lean on a previous greatness, how much does the past become an impediment in forging a fresh self? Where does faith come from, what can you trust, will experience compensate for the slightly failing body?
What must Thorpe forget? “How successful I was.” What must he remember? “The amount of control I had and how I felt in races.” What can he not do without? “The perfectionist” inside.
Before I go see Thorpe, I had already learnt something about comebacks. I was always one of those “don’t they think of their legacies?” people. As if to come back and fail is to corrupt the past, to insert mediocrity into our memories which embrace tightly images of their excellence. Why was Jordan ruining all this, why was Michael Schumacher?
But I changed my mind because of an article I read recently whose author escapes me. But he was clear: This legacy stuff is a flawed argument, the invincible hero never dies in the memory, his image doesn’t get distorted. I thought about it and bought his argument. Truth is, Jordan remains in my mind as an athletic angel, his comeback changed nothing; Schumacher will never be anything but skilful arrogance wrapped in red. I’m not always sure why they come back, why they need to, but it doesn’t diminish them for me any more. I don’t feel the need to draw some line they should never cross. Because really it’s what we want, for them to go beyond every line. To surprise.
But Thorpe comprehends this dilemma. He understood “people hold this image of athletes at their best”, but this isn’t about people, it’s about a man and his dream. He appreciated, with a laugh, that from the conventional legacy perspective, “it’s the worst career move I’ve made”. But then he said this. “People forget athletes were once kids who love what they do. I am finding that love again. I am prepared to sacrifice my legacy for (that) love.”
Which brings us back to where we started.
Love, huh! It’s trite, I know. It’s possibly disingenuous. It’s a nice throwaway line. And I don’t even think he’s going to make it. But what can I say. I kind of like it.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org