A Tale of Four Athletes

June 16, 2013 Updated: June 16, 2013

Following the success of the latest Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012, the aftermath for some of the high-profile, podium-winning athletes will be either an early and/or abrupt end to their careers or a legacy of sponsorship deals and new challenges.

These options are quite typical for the elite athlete. Throughout their sporting careers many prepare for the moment when competition is over. And she or (he) who prepares first generally prepares best, as it is a universal truth that the endgame may be quick and final.

Despite commitment to their sports and their individual and/or collective ambition to excel and exceed all expectations, the sports industry can often provide a cruel fate for many of those hoping to enjoy long and illustrious careers. Simmering beneath their world of ambition is the reality that only a few may achieve greatness in their chosen future profession; while many others may never make it to the top due to unanticipated career-ending injuries. Any unlucky break—whatever the variety—may lead to a speedy demise; and despite the sportsmen and women’s ‘characteristic’ optimism that they will enjoy a glorious future complete with podium success and world records, only a few are fortunate enough to fill those shoes. And once the dream is over there are implications; and these often involve seeking out a new career—ideally in the world of sport.

Behind the spotlight of an uncertain future is the legacy of how athletes prepare for their endgame; and it is almost as important and tactical as their overall career competition.

Look around at Team Great Britain in 2012 and its 500-plus athletes, just a handful of names will remain memorable and stand out from the crowd. For the rest, in the real world only a few succeed post-competition; and this often involves coping with a sudden change in circumstances as management, coaches, and sponsors seamlessly drift away to focus on the careers of the next generation of winners. In many instances a new career search can prove to be an unenviable challenge; and while a timely plan for this lifestyle game-changer is a key factor to making the jump from podium to job seeker it is not an easy process. 

Consider for example wheelchair tennis player, Esther Vergeer who dominated her sport and announced her retirement on Feb. 12, 2013. International Paralympics Committee 
(IPC) President Sir Philip Craven extended his congratulations to the Dutch star on her tremendous career and for transforming the sport of wheelchair tennis. She won eight Paralympic titles and 42 Grand Slams, and in the words of Craven, “On behalf of the entire Paralympic Movement, I would like to congratulate Esther on her unparalleled and historic career, as without a doubt she will go down in Paralympic history as one of the greatest athletes of all time. To win 470 consecutive matches on the court and go unbeaten for 10 years is a remarkable feat. During her career, Esther has given a face to the sport of wheelchair tennis and helped increase awareness for the Paralympics not just in the Netherlands, but throughout sporting communities around the world.”

On the court, Esther has been at the top of the world rankings since October 2000, and off the court her efforts are just as ambitious having established Team ParaStars—a team of Dutch Paralympians who have attained high profiles and fan bases in their own countries by working with grass-roots programs and charities. 

According to the IPC president, “Throughout the entire duration of her career, Esther has embodied the Paralympic Spirit, and it has been a true honor to watch her play and I hope she continues to stay closely connected to the Paralympic Movement in the future.” 

Taking that final step beyond the world of competition sport should prove relatively smooth for the athlete who has carefully planned her future role in Paralympic Sport. In preparing for the endgame over a very extended period she will enjoy a transition that will automatically guarantee a fulfilling but different role in her chosen sport—but not all athletes will enjoy an envious, seamless transition.

Take Usain Bolt. The obvious exception to the rule. He appears to have been preparing for a future career in either football, or perhaps charity work, or even playing a starring role as a DJ. No matter his decision this very engaging record holder will likely succeed in any sector that he may choose. His ability to share his many successes and his occasional failures with his fellow track and field Jamaicans makes him a true team player; and this ability to be generous with his teammates sets him up as an asset for any future career choice.

British swimmer, Rebecca Adlington is another podium athlete. She celebrated winning two gold medals in the pool in Beijing in 2008; but Adlington was smart enough to realize that her two bronze medals in 2012 sent a clear message that she would not achieve the same success in future Olympics. She confirmed her retirement by admitting that she was no longer the fastest game in town. Never quite the poster girl she immediately took a step back from elite sports in order to develop a career in the swimming world outside of competition. Her graceful retirement was well timed and it will no doubt set her up as a future leader of her sport—but this time outside of the pool. By committing to help children to learn how to swim she will quickly establish a successful career in her chosen sport. Adlington made no excuses and got out of the pool while she was ahead.

While Adlington timed the closure of her professional career exit to perfection, this is in sharp contrast to many other athletes who did not achieve their expectations and used excuses as an explanation for not reaching their goals. 

One such example during the London 2012 Games was the very negative response by Oscar Pistorius to the young Brazilian athlete who unexpectedly out-ran the well-renowned athlete. Pistorius’s ill-humored outburst regarding the length of his competitor’s blades was the first indication that he did not like to lose. And from that moment his card appeared to have been ‘marked’; and despite the almost universal adulation from the London 2012 crowd, Pistorius was clearly not a happy boy by accepting defeat in such an inappropriate fashion.

For those of you who are not familiar with Oscar Pistorius he is the first disabled athlete to participate in the Olympics.

It was as a result of his persistent and relentless claim against the IOC that led him to qualify to compete in the London Olympics.

Known globally as “the blade runner,” he set the standard for Paralympic sport and for many years outran his competition … but as is always the case the next generation catches up very quickly in the world of elite sport.

Discovering that winning was no longer a “walk in the park” appeared to be a bitter pill for Pistorius to swallow. Despite the universal respect for his achievements that included participating in both able-bodied and Paralympic events in London 2012 it is likely that this loss had a greater negative impact inside him than most people realize.

Very much an individual who chased his own battles within the sporting world, Pistorius will always be seen as the leader and innovator in a journey that placed Paralympic sport on a level playing field with its able-bodied version.

Perhaps by seeing that he had achieved his vision of greater equality, Pistorius may have closed this chapter of his life; and with this came only empty ambitions that could not match his previous successes. With little to look forward to, his past great achievements may have brought forward a sense of loss, emptiness, and frustration that could not be matched in the future; and without the camaraderie so well illustrated by Bolt, any potential future career might appear just a meaningless challenge.

His recent widely documented accusations in the last few months raises the question whether Pistorius was ever prepared by his team for failure. This young man who single-handedly changed the world of disability sport now faces other challenges; and whatever the outcome of his trial later in 2013, it is the elite sports industry that must share in the responsibility of ensuring that the great athletes can cope with the transition into a new career.

If management turns its back on talents that have worked so hard throughout their competitive careers then it must take some responsibility for their future by providing a role in a post competition environment. And in the case of a sporting hero like Pistorius, he should not be allowed to slip though the gaps in the system like so many other past sporting greats. For Pistorius, the uncertainty of the future may just have proved to be a game-changer too far.

Following several court sessions he was given bail and may soon be seen on track in competition in may countries around the world. And whether he can regain his fan base and his previous form is up for discussion and this debate may come around in a matter of weeks rather than months.