The pressure on sporting comeback kings

Footballers can return to the game without harming their legacies but for individual sports stars the risks are greater.

Ian Thorpe of Australia
The sports mad Aussie public will expect big things from Ian Thorpe on his return to Australia [GALLO/GETTY]

Ah, the comeback. Every sports fan loves it. It’s the intrigue and fascination as to whether the superhero of yesteryear can re-capture the magic and astound us all over again. Almost always the answer is ‘no’.

Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 comeback has left most fans of the sport cringing at the sight of the German great’s struggles against younger, faster opponents. There have been worse ones – like tennis legend Bjorn Borg’s return in 1991 after eight years away from the sport that resulted in 13 straight losses and an ignominious return to retirement.

But that doesn’t stop us watching on – even if we’re peeping through our fingers. It appeals to the curious nature in many of us.

Every so often, the comeback can work out. The greatest example is surely George Foreman regaining boxing’s Heavyweight Championship in 1994, twenty years after he lost the title to Muhammed Ali in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’.

But, the old adage ‘never go back’ is one which is generally best obeyed by sportsmen and sportswomen alike. In no other sphere than sport is talent so brutally stripped away by the onset of time. Musicians may lose their youthful edge, but Mick Jagger can still rock Wembley Stadium. Could Pele?

English football has revelled in the comeback to the top level of two Premiership greats at in recent days in Manchester United’s Paul Scholes and Arsenal’s Thierry Henry. In truth, the English FA Cup competition has lost much of its lustre in recent years but the return of Scholes and Henry in third round ties at the weekend generated an excitement verging on frenzy.

Henry even delivered on the hype, coming off the bench to side-foot the winner as Arsenal overcame Leeds 1-0 in front of an adoring Emirates Stadium crowd. Scholes was less convincing in his substitute appearance and looked rusty as United held off City 3-2 in the Manchester derby.

In football, both these players are highly unlikely to tarnish their legacies as world class players. They are simply helping out the clubs they love. Should they succeed, then great. If they fail, it will be no big deal. But it’s a whole different matter in individual sports. Then the spotlight and the public are a whole lot less forgiving.

Drowning in expectation

In Olympic year, the biggest comeback story is Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe. He retired in 2006 citing a lack of motivation as the reason. After an eight-year career at the top of his sport, nine Olympic medals and 16 World Championship medals, he bowed out at the top.

Even if Michael Phelps stunning eight golds at the subsequent Beijing Olympics in 2008 meant the ‘Thorpedo’ couldn’t really lay a claim anymore on being the greatest swimmer ever, his place in Olympic folklore was safe. It will remain so.

    While Henry’s legacy at Arsenal is safe, Thorpe remains under pressure to deliver the goods [GETTY] 

But his recent comeback is in serious danger of ending this pool legend’s career on a rather soggy footnote. He announced last February of his intentions to make the Australian team for London 2012 and so far it looks a distant dream. 

In his first competitions back in Singapore, Beijing and Riccione, Italy he has been off the pace and far from the world-record breaker a decade back.

This weekend he will race for their first time in his home country in five years as he tackles the 100m and 200m freestyle at the Victoria State Championships in Melbourne.

It all leads towards the Australian Olympic Trials in Adelaide in March.

In his favoured 200m freestyle, Thorpe’s recent time of 1:51:51 in Riccione is seven seconds off his lifetime best and four seconds off the Australian A Olympic qualifying standard. Those are yawning gaps in elite level sport. But there is little yawning amongst the public.

The trials will be a sell-out and covered live on Australian national television, such is the fascination with the sport Down Under. On this occasion, the rest of the world might just share some of that interest thanks to the comebacking Thorpe.

Source: Al Jazeera