A world-weary voice reflected on past glories. He had climbed the mountain of professional sports. More than a decade of constant training. Careful nutrition. Endless rehabilitation from injury. Regular travel. The relentless panhandling for corporate sponsorships and begging for government grants. A supportive family he rarely saw in person, constantly picking him up and cheering him on from afar.
He had come close to reaching the summit.
Representing his country at successive Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
At the former, with a little bit more luck he might have placed for a medal.
At the latter, no chance. Whether the result was down to better luck or better genetics, better discipline or better drugs, there can be only one winner. In real life, there are no participation trophies.
Eventually, all good things come to an end. The relentlessness of time catches up with us all.
Generation next had arrived. Faster. Fitter. Hungrier. Stronger. Younger.
The grants and sponsors voted with their feet. Seeking a higher return on their investment.
One day he was trading stories in the athletes’ village with Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, and Michael Phelps.
The next, he was unsuccessfully selling double-glazed window units to aspirational suburban home-owners somewhere in middle England. A vaguely familiar face. Already fading from public consciousness.
Body broken, old beyond its time.
Bank account empty.
Not successful enough to join the motivational speaking circuit or appear on reality television.
Nor articulate enough to commentate.
Nor smart enough to coach.
A 35+ year-old, who was essentially an unskilled school leaver, having never held down a real job.
This was the true face of professional sports.
A steep and attritional pyramid.
Huge rewards concentrated amongst a select few winners: the “haves”.
The vast majority end up with less than nothing, making up the numbers throughout their all too brief and uneventful careers: the “have nots”.
I asked the former professional sportsman where the sweet spot was? Given that belief alone wouldn’t make you a gold medal winner, and the genetic lottery meant the majority of us (him included) were unlikely to ever beat those truly world-class competitors, where was the happy medium between effort expended and enjoyment realised?
He thought about it long and hard.
Prevaricating about how he had most enjoyed the training camps and camaraderie of being inside the professional sporting bubble, more than the big events themselves.
Rationalising that his answers would probably be different, had he been the one standing on the top step of the podium.
Eventually, he conceded it had been as a young amateur.
A big fish in a small pond. Competing against fellow amateurs. In a field strong enough to keep him honest and make him work, yet one in which he stood a fighting chance of winning.
Back when there was nothing more than pride riding on the outcome. Compete. Enjoy a drink with the other competitors after the event. Then return to the real world.
Keeping his passion as a labour of love, rather than turning it into a full-time job or all-consuming career. One that demanded a constant level of achievement to keep his family fed and mortgage paid.
Setting the bar low, then clearing it often. A recipe for happiness, if not success.
He smiled wistfully at what might have been, and reflected that had he stayed in the sweet spot he may not have found himself in his present circumstances, unsuccessfully attempting to sell products he didn’t understand to punters who didn’t care that he once regularly competed against (and lost to) some of the greatest sportspeople in the world.
Like many people, the former sportsman seemed to enjoy talking about himself. As we exited the property he was quoting to supply windows for, I asked him a follow-up question that I had always been curious about.
With his sporting career behind him, on reflection, if he was really honest with himself, did he always genuinely believe he could be the best? Convinced with the certainty possessed only by the religious, the crypto enthusiasts, and the die-hard tragics who support perennially losing sporting teams?
Or had there been a moment when he realised that it wasn’t going to happen? That no matter how hard he tried, how well he trained, how much effort he applied, he just didn’t quite have what it would take to succeed?
I’d expected reticence.
Anger at someone questioning the premise he had based his entire existence, career, and sense of identity upon?
Instead, he laughed. Raised an eyebrow. Admitted it had been his first international competition, back when he had been a teenager some twenty years earlier.
He had been fast. Strong. Naturally gifted.
A diligent trainer.
Best in his school. Best at his club. Best in the nation.
His coach’s favourite student.
Someone who listened. Learned. Applied what he was taught. Constantly improved.
But once he got on the international stage, he encountered truly world-class competition for the first time. Best coaching. Best nutrition. Best facilities. Best genetics. Best performance-enhancing drugs.
He didn’t win that first competition. He didn’t come close. He didn’t even make it to the final.
Somewhat bewildered, having never been so convincingly beaten before, he turned to his coach with loads of questions but only one incontrovertible answer.
The coach had smiled, patted him on the shoulder, and commended him on giving it his all.
Then said something that had stayed with the former sportsperson throughout his professional career.
“Picking who is ultimately going to win is nearly impossible. Those who will not, you can predict with a high degree of certainty. For whatever reason, often through no fault of their own, they just don’t have what it takes”.
The double-glazing salesman thought about what the coach said. Disagreed with it wholeheartedly. Spent every waking moment of the next decade determined to prove him wrong. And failed.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and the wisdom that sometimes comes with age, he conceded that his coach had been right. Deep down he had known at that first international competition that it would take a minor miracle or outside intervention for him to win a big competition.
He was good, some might say very good, but would never be great.
Throughout his career the winners had varied, but were always drawn from a small select group. The membership slowly changed over time, as former champions aged out and future champions appeared on the scene. But at any given time there just weren’t that many who stood a realistic chance of winning.
The also-rans were many and varied, but often discernible after just a brief interaction.
Most appeared on the scene briefly. Then moved on, in pursuit of more promising opportunities and more realistic goals.
A few stuck around and played the long game. Competing in smaller events, with less competitive fields. Less glamour. Less kudos. Less prize money. Winning occasionally. Placing often. Carving out a career for themselves after professional sports by slowly establishing themselves as a household name, without the packed trophy cabinets of the high-profile champions.
An entitled few battled onwards, heedless of results. Denial carrying them to the limit of their talents, and occasionally just beyond. Some call it grit. Others, stubbornness or being foolhardy. Believing themselves destined for greatness. An outcome the fates appear not to have signed up to.
The former professional sportsman learned that his spidey-sense ability for sizing up the competition and identifying the potential winners was not infallible. But, like that possessed by his coach, it was mostly right, most of the time.
He gave an apologetic shrug, then observed that it worked just as well on potential customers. He’d been able to tell within the first minute of meeting me that I wasn’t going to buy his windows. He had answered my questions because I’d shown an interest in him as a person, and because he had some time to kill before his next sales call.
Over the weeks since I met the former professional sportsman, I have thought about his story often. While it was anecdotal rather than scientific, his experiences rang true and I could relate to his conclusion.
During my first week at university, I sat amongst hundreds of other eager first-year students studying Accounting 101. The lecturer had shuffled up the podium and commenced his welcome with a blunt admonishment.
“Look at the person seated to your left. Now look at the person seated to your right. By the end of this year, only one in three of you will still be attending university and still be enrolled in this degree.”
We students had all smirked and shaken our heads in disbelief, as the lecturer launched into a well rehearsed speech introducing the concepts of debits, credits, and double-entry bookkeeping.
But here is the thing: he was right.
By year’s end, well over half the students had failed, dropped out, deferred, or changed degrees.
That the churn was so high was surprising. But for the most part, within a week or two of commencing the academic year, those who would leave and those who survive were both largely predictable.
Another example I have seen play out several times are graduate programs at megacorp client sites.
Within a year, certainly less than two, more than half the entrants had been chewed up and spat out by some combination of corporate politics, poor career choice, and an unfounded sense of entitlement.
Of those who remained, the select few who would likely ascend to the top stood out from the crowd.
Clearly identifiable even at that early stage, from those hard workers, grafters, and the safe pairs of hands who would experience a steady yet unremarkable rise until their careers topped out then tailed off. Having reached the limits of their abilities, network, and potential.
And ascend they mostly do.
Not always, and not all the way to the top.
But for the most part, further and faster than their fellow alumni from the graduate program class.
Sometimes there are exceptions to the professional sportsman’s theory. Where the outcome isn’t at all obvious in the beginning. Where the results aren’t predetermined.
Take this blog for example.
Almost four years ago it started as a quiet corner of the internet where I told stories and attempted to make sense of my random rambling thoughts.
Four years is an entire olympiad. Too long to be considered short term. Too short to be viewed as long term. An awkward in-between duration.
Four years after I hit publish on that first story, the botnet army, plus the occasional human reader, have stopped by to read them in their hundreds of thousands.
Which is humbling, and more than a little surprising!
Thanks to all who have invested their scarce precious time visiting, reading, commenting, and sharing what you have discovered here.
I suspect I know less now than I thought I did in the beginning, but my storytelling has improved!
Over that time, I haven’t competed at the Olympics, nor found myself selling double glazing. I haven’t gotten rich, nor gone broke. Haven’t been discovered, nor been forgotten. Just comfortably meandered along, writing when the words flow and I find myself with something to say.
Which all things considered, makes for quite an enjoyable hobby.