It wasn’t always like this, was it? Watching the next generation of freshers (not in a sharky way, honest) running about on Saturday was entertaining for several reasons; for a start, watching one of them set light to his sub fusc with a cigarette was certainly the highlight of the day. But, in another way, it was surprisingly nostalgic: surprising both because I didn’t know you could get wistful about something you hardly remember going through, and also because it made me feel so old. More importantly, this isn’t an isolated sensation, particularly when you look at the rapidly changing face of sport in relation to the ages of sports men and women.
With 2012 around the corner, it’s easy to see why the kids of today are starting to appear like the stars of tomorrow. We have 12-year-olds who seem to have been born underwater judging by their swimming and diving ability, teenagers with more gold on their mantelpiece than the Rothschilds, and that doesn’t even get on to football; some of them can put a ball in the back of the net from 65 yards away before they can read. Having said that, the same is probably true for an awful lot of older footballers.
Obviously, there are many advantages to this system; we should be encouraging younger generations to do as much sport as possible, even if it only to stop them ballooning into 20-stone elephants. Besides, the world of football would be a much poorer place without the Jack Wilsheres and Aaron Ramseys of this world. But is this really a fair representation of where we should be directing professional sport?
Look at some of the disadvantages of burdening such young people with being a real, grown-up sportsman. For a start, and I’m happy to admit this applies mainly to the more commercially supported sports such as football, what on earth are 18 year olds going to do with that amount of money? Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll probably sounds like quite a good idea to most teenage guys, but when they put the idea into practice, they get pilloried at every turn. It seems a touch harsh to drown a boy with very little worldly experience in £50 notes and then expect him to have the presence of mind to invest it in the stock market or spend it on Diet Coke and Haribo.
Secondly, what if it all goes wrong? The 19-year-old Olympic gymnast who loses a leg while attempting a triple-inverted-ecclesiastically-aided somersault doesn’t suddenly just lose his career. If he doesn’t have the best of academic qualifications or the prospect of applying himself to another sport, he loses the focus that his life has had so far. It’s like telling someone to find an off-license in Kazakhstan, without giving them an address and blindfolding them; they’re not going to have a leg to stand on (quite literally for the gymnast). It’s important to encourage young people to go into sport professionally, but it’s even more important to let them lay the foundations for life after spandex.
This urge to drive people with a hint of talent into contracts from the moment they can kick a ball also damages sport in another way: it starts to devalue the older, more experienced pros in their fields. Yes, the younger models are going to be faster, maybe a bit stronger and can have their faults excused with the cry of ‘unfinished product’ but people forget how valuable a cool head can be in sport and this is most easily found in veteran competitors. It’s a crying shame to see sportsmen dismissed as ‘past it’ at the age of 30; maybe we should be less keen to rush the younger ones forward and appreciate having a steady hand at the rudder.
Most importantly, I’m fed up of watching football and thinking, “He’s three years younger than me, is adored by thousands of fans and making a fortune doing it”, while cradling half a pint which I had to pay for with coppers and thinking that maybe a law degree wasn’t such a great choice after all.
If we have to spend our youth in places like the Law Bod, digging a pit of extremely worrying debt and with our hair falling out after six consecutive all-nighters, why shouldn’t they? Frankly, my sympathy for the one legged gymnast is fading dramatically…