One of my more pleasant writing assignments came about 20 years ago when an acquaintance at Lyons & Buford Press in New York told me his firm was publishing an American paperback edition of Roger Bannister’s book “The Four-Minute Mile”, and asked me if I’d do an introduction.
I accepted quickly even after he’d apologized in advance for the pay he was offering for my 1,500 words—low three figures I now recall. The clincher was that I’d also receive an autographed copy from the author. Truth to tell, I might have done it just for that.
I’d long admired Bannister, not just for his signal athletic achievement but for the manner in which he accomplished it and for what he did afterward. No single-(or simple-) minded jock, he was a medical student engaged in serious study when he broke the magical mile mark in 1954. When he retired from sport later that year, after defeating his archrival John Landy at the Commonwealth Games in a mile that’s still worth replaying, he embarked on a career as a neurologist that included research accomplishments as well as private practice. A lecture hall at his medical school is named for him, something he’s said he ranked ahead of his running honors.
Sir Roger’s example came to mind many times as I watched the just-concluded Olympic Games. As one after another of the young winners exulted in their glories, I kept wondering what they might do for encores, and not on the playing fields. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, and while the line qualifies mainly as a cute misstatement it’s usually all too true when it comes to athletes. Worse, I have the feeling that I care more about that than do most of the people immediately involved.
Many things have changed since Roger Bannister’s day, and for many years thereafter. Until about 30 years ago participation in high-level sports still was considered to be an interlude between youth and adulthood, with practitioners routinely pursuing off-season education or jobs that turned into livelihoods once their playing days were done. If you frequented Chicago’s LaSalle Street during the 1980s you might have bumped into Terry Brennan, Glenn Beckert or George Seals, ex-jocks plying their new trades in the financial canyon. Old athletes were all over the area, turning a buck on their names (like the putative restauranteurs Mike Ditka, Michael Jordan and Jim McMahon) if not their labors. Ex-Bear Bill Osmanski had a long dental career in the area, ex-Cub pitcher Rich Nye was a veterinarian and Ken Holtzman ran an insurance brokerage. The list went on.
Today, of course, so much money is available even in Olympic sports that receive scant attention at other times that any necessity to earn a living post-sports is negated for some. Michael Phelps, the swimming hero, is retiring at age 27 with a reported $40 million in the bank from endorsements and with additional contracts in hand worth that much or more. All he needs now are some tax tips from Mitt Romney and a stockbroker who’ll explain to him the principles of risk and reward and how they apply to everyone, including him. The cautionary tale is necessary because many (most?) jocks possess the combination of ignorance and arrogance that make them easy marks for financial predators. It’s a jungle out there.
But there’s more to life than money, and if the prospect of retirement at 27 isn’t daunting to Phelps, it should be. The actuarial tables say that he has at least 50 more years on Earth, and he’ll have to fill them somehow. I remember being in Las Vegas some years ago, a few days in advance of a fight I was covering, and leaving my hotel at mid-morning on my reporting rounds. The place had a tennis complex and as I left I saw Sugar Ray Leonard, newly retired from the ring and there to make appearances, on the court smacking shots against a ball machine. Five or six hours later I returned to find him still at it. The guy is seriously bored, I told myself, and a few months later wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d reneged on his retirement, preferring the rigors of his brutal sport to idleness. A swimming pool has to look very good compared with that.
It’s better to fill the hours in interesting ways, and that’s where education comes in. Last week I chuckled at an Al Michaels TV interview with the American gymnastics darlings Gabby Douglas, who’s 16 years old, and Aly Raisman, 18. When Michaels asked them about their future plans, both cheerfully said they’d be taking their circus on the road in the coming months and sticking with their sport thereafter. Better answers would have been high school for Gabby and college for Aly. Athletically speaking, maturity won’t be their friend, but it could be intellectually if they play their cards right. Their parents should clue them in on that.
Gabby and Aly—and Michael, too— can find good examples aplenty if they choose to broaden their horizons. Seb Coe, the man in charge of the London Olympics, was a gold-medal-winning middle-distance runner in the 1980 and ’84 Games and later a member of the British Parliament. Jim Scherr, a freestyle wrestler for the U.S. at Seoul in 1988, spent 10 years as chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Dot Richardson, a star softballer in 1996 and 2000, is an orthopedic surgeon. Figure skater Peggy Fleming ran a winery and paints landscapes. Magic Johnson is involved in numerous profitable and worthwhile enterprises. Boxer George Foreman got behind a wonderful grill. Bruce Jenner, the 1976 decathlon champion, became a Kardashian.
OK, skip that last one.
Required reading for every Olympian—and for other jocks as well—should be the Irwin Shaw short story, “The 80-Yard Run.” It’s about a man who looks back in middle age to realize that his proudest achievement was a football play he made in college. It’s a sad story, but that’s the point. Forewarned is forearmed.