Opinion | The art of stretching time and talent
Older athletes are reminders that there's no appropriate age for sport and no expiry date for enthusiasm
Geet Sethi doesn’t know it but he’s playing for me. He’s the hero of the almost has-beens, the new god for the grey-haired, the champion of the creaky and the cranky. I’m 56, he’s 57 and we’re both pals with stiffness. My solution is grumbling. His was to recently pick up a cue after five years, fold his complaining body over a table and get to the round of 16 at the World Billiards Championships in Leeds in October.
This isn’t a comeback, this is pure joy. This is not about trophies for he’s got enough. Five world professional titles, three IBSF World Billiards Championships and there’s no place here to list the rest. This is not about proving anything. This is now about a number.
500 is the billiards break he wants, which he’ll tell you is roughly equivalent to a “200 in Test cricket". 500 is what he used to routinely do in matches, which he’s done once in practice, and which he wants to do again in competition.
500 is personal. It will just tell him he’s playing well—he had a 190 in the world championships—and that is where he wants to journey to, this place he once knew and wants to return to. There’s a poetry to champions when they start to speak about this feeling and even their voice changes. Sethi talks of “flow", about “everything being in sync", and for him that’s “bliss".
You wonder as he talks on the phone from Dubai if he’s smiling. But I am. Because we need reminders now and then that there’s no appropriate age for sport and no expiry date for enthusiasm.
Sport might belong to young people, to the electric Kylian Mbappe, 19, and the elastic Simone Biles, 21. And yet there’s still a place for Oksana Chusovitina who came fourth in the vault at last week’s world gymnastic championships. She’s a mother and 43 years old.
We applaud the new but who says sport is not a country for old men and women? If you said that to Oscar Swahn, he would have tugged at your ear. With a bullet from a 100 metres. He’s a fascinating champion whose profile, taken from the Sveriges Olympiska Kommitté (Swedish Olympic Committee) website, and put into Google Translate (Swedish to English), starts like this:
“He is a strange figure in the Olympic history this Oscar Gomer Swahn, from the farm Skärbo at the Sannäsfjord in the Tanum parish".
You bet he was strange? After all, in 1908 he won his first Olympic gold at 60 in the men’s single-shot running deer (relax, the deer wasn’t real). At the next Games, he finished fourth in the same event, beaten to gold by his son. But then shooters don’t bend to time that easily and Fehaid Al-Deehani won double trap gold at 49 in Rio. I messaged Abhinav Bindra, a mere boy of 36, to suggest he had sufficient time for a comeback. “No chance," he replied.
Sailors brave the wind deep into middle age and runners stamp on ageists as they stride proudly down the road. Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon in 2014 when he was a month from 39 and Katherine Beiers, a mere 85, finished that same race this year in under 8 hours. Later, she told a TV station: “A beer is my recovery drink." Indeed.
All these people matter because they are stretchers of time, they scoff at the years and no birth certificate reflects what they feel within. In 2012, at the London Olympics, I went to watch the dressage for the first time simply to be in the presence of persistence. Just to wonder how long love stories last. Just to see Hiroshi Hoketsu, 71, whose first Olympics was in 1964, in Tokyo, when The Animals were singing House Of The Rising Sun.
Isn’t this partly why we watch sport, to see the constant expansion of human limits? How far can the body be pushed, ambition sustained, ability developed? Ice baths, nutrition, high-altitude chambers, every day there’s a new device, routine, fad, breakthrough. You can’t tell how much it helps exactly just like you can’t measure the love for a game.
Few stories exemplify the latter better than the life of Julius Boros, the golfer who won the 1968 PGA Championship at the age of 48. His son, Nick, told the San Antonio Express-News this year that “in his later days, one time (Julius) went out before a hurricane on a closed course just to hit anything that wasn’t underwater". When Boros died in 1994, it was on a golf course, in a cart, under a willow tree.
Older athletes lean on experience, trust instinct, adapt, for it is a harder road. Sethi lived intensely for billiards, now his attention is scattered between game, family, job. Everything erodes a little. His eyesight is weaker and this hinders timing. Or as he explains, “The eye flicks between the cue ball and the object ball and the speed of the eye determines timing."
Yet he pushes on, role model to our rusty tribe, and perhaps he’s tuned to Francis Bacon who once wrote: “I will never be an old man. To me, old age is always 15 years older than I am." Play, Geet, play, you want to say. Hunt the 500. Enjoy your chase. Draw your own finish line. Sport is a fundamental human right and at no age does that right run out.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.