As Andriy Shevchenko rose high and above his younger opponents, he nodded, not with gentle acceptance but with searing intensity, as an emphatic answer to self-doubt and an ageless question.
Seven minutes later, he did it again.
Shevchenko, the ageing superstar of Ukrainian football, headed two stunning goals against Sweden on Monday night in a group D match of the Uefa Euro 2012 football competition. Those two goals not only took his team to the top of the group in the very nascent stage of the competition, they were also a testimony of what has been argued for many years even in sport—that age is just a number on a passport.
The striker, at 35 one of the older players in the competition and a tottering relic in popularly accepted terms of competitive football, left behind recurring injuries and indeterminate form to ensure the 70,000 home fans in the stadium would have something to cheer about—a 2-1 victory.
Andriy Shevchenko. Age: 35. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/AP
“I feel like 20 years, not 35!” Shevchenko, who made his international debut for Ukraine in 1995, told reporters after the match.
What Shevchenko also signalled is that professional sport, once a young person’s occupation, is not necessarily so restrictive in this day and, well, age.
Two weeks ago, Viswanathan Anand, 42, retained his world chess crown beating Boris Gelfand, who is a year older than him. The world’s No. 1 player, however, is 21-year-old Magnus Carlsen. Four of the world’s top 10 rated players were born in the 1970s or before, with Anand at No. 4.
Last week, 38-year-old Mahesh Bhupathi won the French Open mixed doubles with Sania Mirza. But Bhupathi would have had no reason to feel past his sell-by date in the players’ cafeteria—at the Roland Garros this year, 37 players aged 30 or more entered the men’s draw, which is an open-era record. Two of them, Roger Federer and David Ferrer, made it to the singles semi-finals.
In the middle of May, Shivnarine Chanderpaul top-scored in both innings with an unbeaten 87 and 91 for the West Indies against England in the first Test match at Lord’s, though the hosts won the match by five wickets. One of the longest serving international cricketers, a drab batsman who hits a boundary as often as an English midfielder delivers a cross, Chanderpaul is, at 37, one of the oldest active international cricketers.
Leander Paes. Age: 38. Photo: Cameron Spencer-Pool/Getty Images
Up and running
Heath Matthews, the sports rehabilitation specialist at the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital and Medical Research Institute in Mumbai, credits advancements in sports medicine and science for extended playing careers. Citing the example of Diego Forlán, the 33-year-old Uruguayan who was the player of the tournament in the 2010 Fifa World Cup, Matthews says that a decade ago many people would not have been able to compete in their 30s—this is increasingly possible now because of better recovery (the body’s ability to recuperate from the rigours of a match/tournament).
“In your 20s, you have age but not experience; in your 30s, you have experience but the body does not listen to you. When you are able to get the same level of fitness in your 30s, combined with your experience and skills, it will make you that much of a better performer,” says South African Matthews, who has worked with Bhupathi, Mirza and badminton player Saina Nehwal in the past.
It’s the sort of credit Leander Paes also gives, to his father Vece Paes—an Olympian hockey player and a certified sports doctor. Leander, 38, said after winning this year’s Australian Open doubles with Radek Štepánek that had it not been for his father, his longevity in the sport would not have been possible.
“After my 23rd birthday, age just became a number— 28-38-48-58, so what?” It doesn’t matter. It’s more to do with the way you lead your life, the way I look after my physicality, my mental state of mind, my passion…those drive excellence. I had a partner in Martina Navratilova who was winning Grand Slams when she was 50, so to me, what is 38?”
The standards change according to sport, though there are exceptions. For high-intensity impact sports like football and rugby, for instance, the burnout age is earlier because of extensive wear and tear; for disciplines like tennis and badminton, careers may be longer. These rules don’t always apply, though.
Viswanathan Anand. Age: 42. Photo: Misha Japaridze/AP
Seven-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal, who plays an intensely physical variety of the racket sport, has suffered several injuries over the years, raising fears that the 26-year-old may not last long in competitive tennis. On the other hand, this year’s second-placed team in English Premier League (EPL) football, Manchester United, comprised players like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, who are 37 and 38, respectively (their teammate, briefly, at United was Paul Pogba, who was born a year after Giggs made his debut for the team).
Former United player Gary Neville, who himself played well into his mid-30s, wrote in the Daily Mail in February that over the last 10 years, players who once would have been discarded as too old have become important parts of title-winning squads. The ideal EPL squad these days would have about eight players under 23, about 12 between 23 and 31, and four or five up to 38. “Five years ago at Manchester United, we were given a presentation about the famous Milan lab at AC Milan, where, with good sports science and healthier lifestyles, they have kept players well into their thirties,” Neville wrote.
Tough to crack
Shivnarine Chanderpaul. Age: 37. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Even if health permits, the challenge for older players is to find the motivation to continue playing and, as Shevchenko said, to overcome the fear of failure.
During the Fide World Chess Championship match which Anand won on a tie-breaker, former champion Garry Kasparov said Anand lacked motivation and was sliding downhill. England’s 47-year-old Nigel Short, ranked No. 40, joined in the criticism, telling DNA that the Indian had become “mentally old” and his “play is declining”.
While Anand shrugged off these charges later and refused to consider retirement after his win, the Indian grandmaster is not unaware of his position.
“Motivation is something you can’t maintain for long,” he said in an interview to Mint last year. “There are days when I simply don’t feel like looking at chess at all. These days come quite often, maybe more often than before. But there are two ways of looking at this: If managed well, this can be almost healing. Where you get away from the game and then you find you are hungry to work. I find that being able to completely cut myself off from chess is helpful. But when motivation comes, it’s still as strong as before, though I can’t maintain it for long.”
While Anand is aware of his increasingly younger competitors, he says that as long as he can motivate himself to pull up a chair and hunch over a board, he will continue to do that.
Ryan Giggs. Age: 38. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Chess is not an intensely physical sport but it requires stamina and concentration that has to sustain over days. The decision on how long he wishes to play is Anand’s—this is possible in individual sports. In team competitions, the decision also depends on whether the team management believes there are suitable replacements for slowing stalwarts.
Ukraine needed its Sheva, a talismanic figure, to perform the miracle; West Indies perhaps need Chanderpaul for stability; and Scholes came out of retirement for this season. Till recently, Sachin Tendulkar (39), Rahul Dravid (39) and V.V.S. Laxman (37) formed the oldest batting middle order in cricket. Though Dravid retired earlier this year, the other two continue due to their own desires, but supported often by the absence of suitable replacements.
As Federer continues to search for just one more Grand Slam, as sportsmen like Michael Schumacher come back from retirement in F1 racing, as Shevchenko scores out of the blue, it helps fans keep the legend alive, literally and metaphorically.
When asked what it felt like to be called a legend, Leander smiled, before saying, “It means I am old.”