Science, a boon to athletes

ROHIT BRIJNATH

THE tour to Zimbabwe is off, but for Captain Steve it is but a short reprieve. Soon the debate will reignite, and it will be said again, that he is, in a sense, fighting a Waugh it appears he cannot win.

The issue is not merely form, because for men of his fulsome talent and embalmers grim focus that is possibly retrievable. He may handle adversity; but what of anno Domini. If Waugh was 27, the criticism would be muted; closing in on 37, the calls are more shrill. At his age, the body turns more reluctant to obey the mind's command, each comeback more tenuous than the last.

Maybe the eyes register the ball's direction a fraction later, the body collects itself into position a nanosecond too slow, the shoulders are less supple, the feet less light: sport asks for quickness, age brings slowness. This surely Waugh cannot defy.

It seems simple, a child's logic, an unarguable resolution. But recent history suggests otherwise. Over the past few years, athletes have been dying their grey hair and pretending little has changed. Time is not being stopped, but possibly more cleverly managed, bodies pushed further than age once allowed.

Courtney Walsh was bounding in with a young man's litheness till he was 38, a fast bowler at that. Reigning heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, a man who can take a punch and deliver a fair one too, is 36. Romario, at 35, is still doing pirouettes in the penalty box ballet dancers might envy, till some weeks ago the highest scorer in the Brazilian league.

It is a young man's world, of course, but clearly the old are not taking the hint. Their bodies are held together by science's safety pins and the glue of stubbornness, the only part not in working order their ears. Clearly, they are deaf to conventional wisdom.

Sport over the past decade and more, literally became child's play, anything over 16 failed to meet the definition of prodigy. Tennis kids - Jaeger, Austin, Seles, Hingis - went straight from rattle to racket. Swimmers needed chaperones and bibs, and when gymnasts sat on chairs their legs dangled from an alarming height. Of course, this was more with women athletes. Still, Capriati won her first Grand Slam title last year at 25, and suddenly all sort of chaos was afoot.

There was more. Over time, most disciplines have forfeited finesse for a more muscular style, exchanged subtle touches for the emphatic statement of power (see tennis, badminton, hockey...). In speed, athleticism, force, sport has moved up a gear: it is called progress. There is no time to stand still, except maybe in golf, and there too, elbows that once bent only over a Scotch in the bar post-round now bench press 200 pounds (Tiger does).

Young lungs, young sinews, young attitude: if your mirror shows up wrinkles it is time to talk pensions. Or so we were told.

Yet, last year, Barry Bonds, swung his immense shoulders to break baseballs home-run record, perfectly blending muscle and eye to find power and timing at 37. Randy Johnson, the winning pitcher at the World Series, his shoulder and elbow slinging down vicious pitches that whistled and curved, is 38.

These men are not the rule, but neither the exception. Some might have unique metabolisms, Walsh certainly, that allows for their bodies to recover and handle physical stress more effectively and efficiently.

But mostly, it is a triumph for science. At the Australian Open, a former tennis player laughed as he told me that in his time drinking water during matches was considered heresy. Today, re-hydration is sports first commandment, and players like Leander Paes have technicians measuring exactly how much they sweat.

Science and technology is a destructive yet creative force. Artificial surfaces and modern rackets ask more from the body, yet equally ways are found to deal with the damage.

Once an athletes workout post-match was measured by the number of empty beer bottles. Today, the warm-down extends to a lengthy stretching of the muscles, as much after play as before. Masseurs were once found only in seedy parlours, today they are a necessity. Physiotherapists were viewed with a certain scepticism, now Australian cricket teams take one on tour.

Predictably, the sporting teams' entourage has undergone alteration. Coaches necklaced with a whistle on a nylon string once reigned unchallenged; but on matters of body this tactician defers to the strength coach, the doctor, the physio, the podiatrist, the bio-mechanist, the scientist.

Individual athletes are as careful. Agassi named his child Jaden Gil, in appreciation of trainer Gil Reyes who helped strengthen his body and therefore his resolve. Last year, at 31, a decade older than Hewitt and Federer and Safin, Agassi mostly held his own, and conditioning was his saviour.

Nothing is left to chance. At the 2002 Australian Open, Leander spent hours at his foot doctor because of bone spurs in his heels. It meant he required extra, soft padding. However, having flat feet he also requires a firm insole to ensure his feet are arched. The foot doctor must now fashion an insole that solves both problems.

Athletes are equally at home in laboratories as they are in gyms. Their strength is tested, reflexes gauged, technique filmed, oxygen-intake monitored, fast-twitch fibre measured, strokes analysed, joints X-rayed, diet scrutinised.

Everywhere athletes search for an edge, a counter to weakness. It is also a method that allows them to sustain themselves longer. Older athletes understand and listen to their bodies better, pace themselves with sciences assistance, pay attention to detail, regulate their diets, and find extra years for themselves. Jan Zelezny won the javelin gold at Sydney 2000, Heike Dreschler the long jump gold; he was 35, so was she. Waugh will savour these feats and file away these names.

Cricket has broken through the restrictions of a season, and calendars are pockmarked with match dates. One-day cricket's frantic quality exhausts both mind and body. Comparatively however, cricket's demands (fast bowlers might sneer though) are reasonable, it asks a limited athletic question.

Waugh though has played 17 years, and his body's rebellion is a business only he knows. Young men will always rule sport, for there is no substitute yet for that.

But older athletes are not quite ready for denture fittings: they are bolstered by experience, and own a wisdom youth rarely does. It is a rare advantage. To some degree, intellect can compensate for strength, anticipation for speed. Older men are often, not always though, smarter: they see situations with a greater clarity, calculate the percentages better, and gauge their bodies and modify their games accordingly. They find a way to remain effective.

Fast bowlers cut down run-ups and use the ball and their opponents weaknesses more cleverly; striker Denis Bergkamp, not as quick as before, is still creative and understands his place in the scheme of play; Michael Jordan, at 39, cannot hang in the air or shoulder to the basket as efficiently any more, but has developed other skills to offset his decline.

John Buchanan, put a further spin on it recently, while defending the Waughs: "I really believe the older you are, the more experienced you are, the more you know your game, and therefore the quicker you can arrest, or at least deal with, the issue you might have.

Waugh's clock is ticking but we are unsure if it has run-out. His athletic ability may have reached its use-by date. But then again, may be not.