Time for sports bodies to support players who gave their all

Transitory nature of life as a top-level sports person inevitably brings its own challenges

Ben Johnson: faced disaster when his career ended in disgrace. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ben Johnson: faced disaster when his career ended in disgrace. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

With the Irish Rugby Union Player’s Association Annual Awards (Irupa) in the DoubleTree Hilton Hotel Dublin next Wednesday I’m reminded of Crossing the Line’s tagline “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success”.

Yes Irupa has unveiled the nominations for the ten Zurich Irish Rugby Players’ Awards and but for one award; BNY Mellon Hall of Fame all recipients are still very much playing. At the other end I’m especially looking forward to the winner of the Nevin Spence Young Player of the Year but what of those who’ve completed their journey? Where are they and how are they doing?

In setting up Irupa our vision was always to create a lifelong journey for our elite players. Frighteningly I was met with almost blanket apathy for a ‘body’ to represent the player. Players’ attitudes back then in the early noughties were not unlike attitudes today in that playing for Ireland was their entire focus.

Anything that distracted from that goal would be jettisoned. But all of a sudden, Connacht’s threatened demise had my phone ringing. As you can imagine, totally committed Connacht players, who had given everything for the ‘dream’ suddenly woke up to reality.

Grow together

So the IRFU did Irupa a favour in highlighting how brittle a professional rugby career is. But we never set up Irupa to battle but to embrace the opportunity to grow together. Worryingly the career now starts as early as ten years of age; not in contracts but in dreams. Ask a kid what he wants to be when he grows up and you’ll hear; “a professional rugby player for Ireland”. This ‘job’ didn’t exist when I was ten so my answer was always “Army officer” that happened to play sport.

Likewise the career doesn’t finish when the player stops playing which Irupa recognise fully. So let’s talk best case and worst case scenario by starting with a good case. A good case is the player arriving into the elite system as he gets inducted into a great physical programme, is ‘required’ to attend third level education and has a shot at the big time. Should it all finish at 21 then it’s most likely he has an academic qualification, a great life experience and a great body but with youth to transition quickly into real life. Best case is the mutli-capped international with huge profile and a war chest to fall back on.

The guy in the middle is worst case; someone who has journeyed brilliantly giving his all but wakes up at 30 plus, is injured, has no caps, no savings and has lost 15 plus years on his peers in ‘normal’ careers.

So what are sporting bodies IRFU, GAA, FAI, Athletics Ireland etc. doing to guide and support him in his subsequent journey? Do we care? Well if you are that guy or indeed are that sporting body then the Irupa Awards or the global gathering of ex-athletes in Trinity College Dublin on Saturday May 28th should be of interest to you. The Crossing the Line Sport Summit (www.crossingthelinesummit.com) is aiming to make a positive difference to the lives of retired athletes with a unique global gathering of athletes, ex-athletes, coaches and mentors.

In supporting athletes transitioning to the next stage of their lives there are global sporting stars to challenge the issue of athlete retirement. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson and four-time Olympic champion Greg Louganis are amongst them. For me Johnson represents the ‘perfect case’. His retirement must have been a disaster; disgrace and minimal endorsement ability. So after a life in his sport he has nothing. But, considering the endemic cheating that occurred in 1988 surely his organisation has a responsibility post retirement. But alas, no doubt, his body have disowned him as quickly as readers.

For Greg Louganis as a four-time Olympic champion his challenges are drastically different. In 1988 he struck his head on the springboard, won gold the following day and later tested positive for HIV. Seven years later announced he was gay. Listening to our top end elite athletes is entertaining but time with Johnson and Louganis reveals real life lessons.

My sense is most sporting bodies would shy away from Johnson. But if they do they miss the point as his retirement deserves the most attention. Struggling to reintegrate is a real issue that governing bodies simply can’t ignore. In Trinity athletes will share their stories on the difficulties of retirement. This hopefully will ignite a global conversation within sport federations, media and athletes alike on the importance of planning for athlete retirement as well as tackling athlete mental health issues.

Entire cycle

Over coming years more and more retiring professional rugby players will complete their entire cycle in the bubble of rugby; from school, through academy, into professional rugby before retiring 15 years later at the bottom of the real life ladder. How would you cope?

This scenario frightens the life out of me where many of our fine athletes having given their all may find themselves in a terrible state at 35 with a bleak future which players and especially governing bodies often don’t address. In fact it would be negligent of sports bodies to invite young athletes into their fold and simply spit them out 15 years later.

Top level sport is amazing but can also come with a heavy price emotionally, mentally and physically especially when you know nothing else before the end. liamtoland@yahoo.com

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