Wondering when is it the right time to execute the inevitable end of the road strategy

No one is better qualified to judge the moment than the person making the decision

World Championship  gold medallist Rob Heffernan listed off at least six reasons why he’s anything but finished.

World Championship gold medallist Rob Heffernan listed off at least six reasons why he’s anything but finished.

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 12:00

There are lots of good reasons why JD Salinger retired at 46. Some we already know, others presented in the daring new documentary Salinger, which only naturally also comes in book form.

The documentary airs on PBS in January, the book is already out – all 698 pages of it. For anyone who has ever enjoyed his 1951 gem The Catcher in the Rye (65 million books already sold, 250,000 books still printed every year), Salinger will not disappoint, as if old Holden Caulfield himself had played some hand in it. It both deconstructs and at the same time magnifies the Salinger myth, especially when it comes to his decision not to publish anything past his 1965 novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, even though he lived to the ripe old age of 91, dying at his remote home in Cornish, New Hampshire, in 2010.

What the documentary suggests, amongst many other things, is that Salinger timed his retirement very deliberately, so that by being invisible to the public, he could be everywhere in the public imagination. The fact he was born with only one testicle, although a mild deformity, also influenced his decision to avoid any further media glare, and with that the likelihood this information about his anatomy would emerge.

Yet perhaps the overriding reason why Salinger retired at 46 was the simple realisation that his best work was already done, and rather than risk rejection with his inevitable decline, his exit strategy was decided exclusively on his own terms. We know he continued to write until his death, some of it due for publication in instalments starting between 2015 and 2020 – and that might ultimately prove whether or not Salinger was truly finished at 46. Either way his legacy now is untouchably safe.

The top table
I finished Salinger the night before the National Athletics Awards, on Wednesday, and was promptly reminded of it while observing the top table: there sat Rob Heffernan, alongside fellow World champion Eamonn Coghlan and Olympic champion Ronnie Delany, still wonderfully living up to his sporting immortality.

Indeed both Coghlan and Delany have retained an almost equally strong athletics legacy, despite their contrasting exit strategies: Delany, Olympic champion in 1956 at just 21, soon recognised his own inevitable decline, and hampered by injury at the 1960 Olympics, retired a year later – at 26 – never again running competitively, or indeed for pleasure: Coghlan, after finishing fourth in both the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, eventually struck gold at the 1983 World Championships, at 30, yet wasn’t as quick to recognise his decline, continuing on to the 1988 Olympics, before finally realising it. Then five years later, sensing his moment of retirement was somehow premature, Coghlan made a comeback, and in 1994 became the first man over 40 to run a sub-four minute mile - before promptly retiring again, this time for good.

Later on Wednesday, after he’d collected his Athlete of the Year Award – the inevitable bonus prize to his gold medal success in the 50km walk in Moscow last August – Heffernan was drawn into this subject of retirement, and justifiably so: he’ll be 36 in February, and with the Rio Olympics still three years away, and his gold medal in Moscow effectively 13 years in the making, he could be in for a slow if not inevitable decline. I couldn’t help wondering if Heffernan wouldn’t be better off finishing his career on the highs of the here and now, instead of risking the lows of the there and then.

Six reasons
Instead, Heffernan listed off at least six reasons why he’s anything but finished. Chief among them is the fact he’s only now built himself the sort of professional set-up it takes to succeed at the very elite level, and he’s got plenty more to gain from that, especially given his physical and mental states are also stronger than they’ve ever been and he’s already gunning for gold again at the European Championships in Zurich next summer.

What is certain, not just in athletics terms, is that no one is better qualified to judge the moment of retirement than the person who must make it – not the person who merely evaluates it. The one exception is the athlete who doesn’t decide to retire, but is forced to - and not always because of illness or injury. Nowhere was that more tragic than with Jessie Owens, who a year after winning his four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, had his amateur status withdrawn, on mostly dubious grounds, effectively retiring him at 23, and forcing him to see out his career racing horses.

It may come as some further disappointment to admirers of Owens that one of those gold medals he won in Berlin is now for sale in an online auction (www.scpauctions.com), with a current bid of just $80,526. His other three medals are unaccounted for, but this one is verified, and which Owens gave to his movie star friend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, partly because Owens considered it worthless. Again, it is impossible to know how much more valuable that medal might be had Owens made his exit strategy from the sport exclusively on his own terms, retired when he wanted to and not when he was told to, but either way, his legacy remains untouchably safe.

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