Are we quick to unfairly overlook 'older' players?


“We oftentimes write off older players, blinded by their age, without properly appreciating their skills”

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Image by Tourism Victoria

By Jack Bleksley

In sport there is arguably no more treasured a commodity than youth. A talented youngster bursting on the scene, will often be surrounded by a torrent of media speculation, such as Emma Raducanu or Jude Bellingham for example. However, does this fixation on youth mean that we often times write off older players, blinded by their age, without properly appreciating their skillset?

A few weeks ago, 35-year-old Andy Murray competed in the Australian Open with his first round win against Thanasi Kokkinakis lasting a mammoth five hours and 45 minutes. This is an impressive feat for any athlete and a true test of their endurance. There was something that bugged me though, as I scrolled through the Twittersphere. Time and time again, sports journalists with blue ticks (if that means anything anymore) were constantly referring to Andy Murray’s age as if it was miraculous that a 35-year-old could play a match of that length at such an old age. How did Murray’s 35-year-old body put up with it? Is he alien? At 35, he should be sat at home collecting his state pension, surely?

A similar phenomenon occurred when Manchester United signed a then 36-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. A huge amount of the media reaction was centred around Ronaldo’s age, asking whether he would be able to perform well in the Premier League at his age, ignoring the fact that he had scored 36 goals in 44 appearances in all competitions for Juventus the season before, including 29 Serie A goals making him the league’s top scorer.

My point is this: those of us who love sport all too often write off players because of their age. We let the fact that a sportsperson’s age starts with a three cloud our judgement when deciding if they are still a good player.

If a 21 year old player had achieved what Ronaldo did in Serie A the season before he joined Manchester United, English football media would have gone crazy that such a talented player was coming to the Premier League. But because Ronaldo was 36, there were doubts that he was too old to make it in the world’s ‘toughest’ league.

I’m not denying that most players are past their best at the age of 30. In most sports, players experience their physical peak in their mid-to-late twenties. There is also the argument that a lot of players have lost that ‘hunger’ that is needed to be successful at the top level. This may be true for average players, but ‘greats’ can succeed long into their thirties. However, just because players might be past their best, doesn’t mean that they aren’t still exceptional athletes who are capable of competing and succeeding at the highest level.

Serena Williams won ten of her 23 singles titles in her thirties, arguably reaching her peak dominance in 2014-15 at the age of 33. LeBron James recently turned 38 years old and yet is still regarded as one the best players in the NBA. Tiger Woods completed the comeback-to-end-all-comebacks when he won the 2019 Masters Tournament at the age of 43. Don’t forget Ronaldo’s ‘Greatest of All Time’ rival, Lionel Messi, who won the World Cup at age 35 a few months ago. So many top athletes can achieve greatness at ages that many sports fans would consider geriatric.

There is also a flip side to this situation that we find ourselves in. Our obsession with youth doesn’t only cloud our judgement of older players, but younger players too. If a young player impresses, there is often a media frenzy where phrases like ‘future GOAT’ and ‘one-to-watch’ get thrown about at will. This is normally not healthy, and can often lead to an inflated impression of the athlete’s actual ability or cause the athlete to get lost in the hype.

Take footballer Ravel Morrison, for example. Once hailed by none other than Sir Alex Ferguson as the “best he had seen at that age”. Morrison now plays his football in the MLS for D.C. United. Not the great heights that he was once tipped for (apologies to any MLS fans reading). Said to have been a nightmare to manage, this is a case of a player who certainly let the hype get to his head. A youth prodigy like Emma Raducanu or Jude Bellingham is an exciting prospect. What will they achieve? How good will they be? It’s nice to ponder these questions and hypothesise. It is also incredibly important to plan for the future through youth players.

But the truth is, in sport we also have to think about the here and now. There are so many great athletes who continue to show us their mastery of their sport well into their thirties and even forties. As students in our late teens and early twenties these years seem way off. But as our parents and even some lecturers will tell us, thirty isn’t even that old. Maybe those of us in sport should listen to them.