Why set limit just as athletes get better fighting off age?

IN INTERSTELLAR, Christopher Nolan's cinematic adventure, time slows down for the astronaut in space. On earth, time is merely being reinterpreted. As mountaineers ascend Everest at 80, what is appropriate for an age is being redefined.

In a poignant feature called Old Masters in the New York Times Magazine, the actress Betty White, working at 92, made this observation: "We've made age such a terrible thing that the younger people think that just getting to that age is awful."

Professional athletes will smile ruefully in agreement.

Particularly hostage to the onset of time, by their 30s they feel the inquiring gaze of the world: Fast enough? Agile enough?

But even here, old masters are making us rethink the idea of age. It's the accumulation of winning forehands that count, Roger Federer, 33, is insisting, not his aggregation of years.

Sport, the ultimate meritocracy where effectiveness is measured daily, is presumed to be blind to everything but talent.

The beauty of a playing field lies in its democracy: anyone can apply to play. We fight for size, sex and colour not to be an impediment.

So, too, surely it must be for age. The ball does not ask your date of birth but obeys where you send it. If it's consistently in the wrong direction, you will be irrelevant.

It is why the S-League's decision to restrict teams to only five outfield players over 30 is, well, untimely.

Older players, already confronting real barriers in their struggle to stay relevant, do not deserve to be tripped by artificial ones.

This becomes selection by calendar, not by craft and it is gently ironic in a nation which rightly recommends that its citizens keep working.

Youth infuses sport with its own exuberance, yet ageism can have the same odour as sexism.

Unquestionably, a football league is not a cosy retirement home and I carry no torch for athletic pensioners.

But logically, if feeble old players are interrupting victory, why would clubs pick them? In a winning world, this seems counter-intuitive.

Faster play is a sound idea, but perhaps enticing the young to lace up boots requires a less simplistic solution.

Sport, after all, should never offer a free pass: The idea is better football, not younger football. In all this, no one doubts the honest intent of the League, only its execution.

In truth, modern sport is ageing well as it is kissed by science and advanced training systems. On Friday, for instance, on a visit to the stunning Singapore Sports Institute, I found a full-fledged kitchen where they teach nutritional practices, a high-tech rehabilitation centre and a set of rooms where they can mimic altitude training up to 5,000m.

Age is not reversed here, but part of such science is a managing of it.

Older athletes are smarter and more attuned to their altering bodies. Years ago I lunched with Rahul Dravid, the former Indian cricketer, who told wincing stories of the efficacy of ice baths even as he pecked away as if peering into a calorie counter with each bite.

When he retired, he was 39.

On the men's tennis tour, where a boy's strength cannot manage the rigours of a muscular game, teenagers have gone extinct. In 1984, the average age of the top 10 was 23.5; 30 years later it is 27.8.

Last year, in a fine piece in the Boston Globe, writer Shira Springer noted that "in 1982, there were two players 35 or older on NBA opening night rosters; last fall (2012) there were 20."

Later, she added, "in the National Hockey League there were four players 35 or older in 1982, but 56 started this season".

The older athlete has to be an adroit tailor, using his experience to fashion himself to meet new demands. In his challenge of the impossible lies part of sports' poetry.

The athletic life, after all, is supposed to be a defying of limitations, not an enforcing of them.

It is a philosophy deftly encapsulated in the title of Michael Phelps' book: No Limits. But now we are setting them.

Setting quotas is always complex.

In South Africa in the late 1990s, cricket teams were expected to field a certain number of players of colour in a bid to counter the racial discrimination that came with apartheid.

That system had its critics, but occasional reservation to balance a previous injustice has an argument. But in Singapore football are young players discriminated against?

Are they, as policy, marginalised?

There is a difference, after all, between cleverly opening doors for the young and abruptly closing them on the older.

Of course, let's challenge football's senior citizens. Let's measure body fat and rigorously test fitness. Let's keep them on short contracts.

Let's examine if their accumulated knowledge is managing to offset reduced speed. Let's prune them according to on-field prowess, not off-field decree. Let's be what sport was supposed to aspire to: Fair.

Beyond this planet, in Interstellar, Nolan traversed the unknown; on this planet, athletes attempt similarly unique adventures. Richie McCaw, at 33, is a rugby inspiration in all black while Pakistan cricketer Misbah-ul-Haq, 40, recently equalled the fastest Test century scored.

Progress arrives from telling humans to "go". Rarely from insisting they "stop".


This article was first published on Nov 16, 2014.
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