When the flame goes out

Image of Simon Kuper

Late tomorrow night at London’s closing ceremony, the Olympic flame will be extinguished. The athletes will look up from admiring each others’ medals and new Olympic boyfriends/girlfriends, and gape. “The flame goes out and suddenly four years of your life are abruptly over. Terrifying,” writes the Secret Olympian, a former British athlete who competed at the Athens Games before becoming an Olympic-standard pseudonymous author. For many retiring Olympians, ordinary human life starts this Monday morning. They may find it unbearably flat.

It’s not that being an athlete was huge fun. You’re injured, returning from injury, getting screamed at by your coach, dining on vitamin supplements, and the whole point of being a perfectionist is that even the triumphs are not satisfying. You leave them behind almost the moment they happen.

But the athlete’s life is both simple and intense. Like investment bankers, Olympic athletes live almost every hour in service of a number. For the banker it’s his bonus, for the athlete his time. As the Secret Olympian says: “You have to lose all perspective … You have to become your performances. You are either a good or a bad person, a success or a failure, depending on the time on the stopwatch.” The International Olympic Committee calls this psychological condition “athletic identity”: athletics becomes the athlete’s whole identity.

The athlete is the centre of his universe. Everyone around him – partners, parents, friends he never sees – is taught that every relationship must fit around his number. As the Secret Olympian explains, the athlete can rarely attend a family birthday or even a sibling’s wedding. The ecstatic Olympic parents we’ve seen on TV this past fortnight are ecstatic for a reason: had Son or Daughter messed up their Olympic moment, much of the family’s last decade would have been wasted. Indeed, several athletes who didn’t win medals have apologised to their supporting cast live on TV.

Athletes also experience an emotional intensity unknown to most office workers. The basic illusion of the Olympics is that it is more important than life and death. Winning in front of 80,000 fans provides a buzz rare in civilian life. So does losing. The former Dutch footballer Wim Kieft says he wishes he had realised as a player how beautiful defeat was: you sit in the changing room with all your teammates, too tired to lift a bottle of water to your lips, in deepest misery, and it is a shared intensity of feeling that you will never experience again after football. Then there is the daily endorphin rush of training.

No wonder ex-athletes are often appalled to discover how buzz-free our lives are. The highlight of most professional careers is a promotion, a piece of work that the boss likes, or an office junket to the seaside. Even if you do a good job, nobody may ever notice. “There isn’t a monitor giving you your average speed or recognition of a personal best,” notes the Secret Olympian from his City office. Careers behind desks don’t end with medals. Instead, a drinks trolley comes by, the boss makes a jokey, five-minute speech, and you pack your bag and click through the security gate forever. As Bettine Vriesekoop, a Dutch former Olympian table-tennis player, concluded: “In the eyes of former champions, life without top sport is deadly boring, unpleasant and predictable.”

In this bland afterlife, athletes carry their athletic peaks with them for ever. Among the British Olympic medallists honoured at the opening ceremony were two septuagenarians who had once been teenage rivals. After the ceremony, they walked out of the stadium together towards the Tube (the organisers had given them free one-day Travelcards), reminiscing about a race they had run aged about 16. “You only won,” one remarked, “because it was in your own town, so they gave you the inside lane.” And the other retorted: “What do you mean? I was in the outside lane.” Neither could quite remember, and yet they couldn’t forget either.

Olympic memories are for ever. The best an Olympian can do is give those memories a happy place. That’s easiest for the small minority who come home with medals. In the 100m race at 7pm on July 7 1924, the Briton Harold Abrahams (later immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire) won gold and the New Zealander Arthur Porritt won bronze. From then on the two men dined together every July 7 at 7pm until Abrahams’ death in 1978.

But many former athletes never recover from the flame going out. Sporting has-beens fill American literature and film: John Updike’s former high-school basketball star Rabbit Angstrom, and Arthur Miller’s Biff Loman; Marlon Brando’s ex-boxers in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront; and the former high school football star Brick Pollitt, in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who, as a disappointed adult, drunk at 3am, jumps hurdles to the cheers of an imaginary crowd and breaks his ankle. Tomorrow night, flames will go out inside many Olympians.


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