Back in 2003, I remember sitting in the cinema to watch the final film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I remember watching the climax to one of Western cinema’s landmark achievements. I remember my chest swelling as I was about to exhale a fulfilled sigh as the film ended.
And then I remember the film not ending.
It’s a common joke among movie fans that the film had multiple endings. It was as if the director, Peter Jackson couldn’t bear to let go, adding numerous postscripts to a story that had already reached its natural and satisfying conclusion.
After winning a record 18th gold medal at London 2012, Michael Phelps had reached the end. A fitting valediction for the most gilded Olympic career there’s ever been. But like The Return of the King, the story didn’t end. In the grandmother of all postscripts, Phelps came back to swimming to compete at the Rio Olympics.
The notion of an athlete coming out of retirement is nothing new. The list includes Michael Schumacher, Evander Holyfield, Kim Clijsters, and Michael Jordan, among others, which compels us to take a look at why this is such a common leitmotif.
In a world where so much fame, money, and attention can be garnered by sporting success, I suspect there’s a correlation between the returning athlete and the musician (or band) who can’t bear to retire, always having one “final” farewell tour. Because to walk away would expedite a confrontation with a gaping void where the adoration and affirmation of complete strangers once resided. The Stone Roses song, I Wanna Be Adored could be the unretiring athletes anthem.
And the chase of victory can be an addictive opiate. It’s worth noting that elite athletes seldom choose to retire. It’s a choice the way that writing your will is a choice. It’s borne out of necessity rather than desire. It’s the grudging acceptance of a situation you would prefer to not countenance.
It’s redolent of Chris Rock’s (pretty narrow-minded) assertion that “men don’t settle down, we surrender”. Do athletes genuinely quit their sport, or do they just surrender to the irrevocable passing of time?
Part of Phelps’ reasoning for returning was that he had “unfinished business”. But he was already one of the greatest Olympians – if not the greatest – ever. It begs the question, what needed finishing?
The closest we’ve got to an answer over the past week is the desire for Phelps to avenge his surprise loss to Chad Le Clos in the 200 metre butterfly from four years ago. Avenge may seem a strong word in this context; after all, it’s only sport. But “Phelps Face” was a visage borne of vengeance.
He summarily got his revenge over Le Clos, stating afterwards, “I didn’t say anything to anybody else, but there wasn’t a shot in hell I was losing that tonight.” But it felt that even vanquishing Le Clos wasn’t his main motivation. That victory pose felt more like a reaffirmation that was he still the man, and had taken back his kingdom.
Sometimes sport can be an allegory for – and microcosm of – life. When the end comes, it’s common to want a little more time. But rarely do we see someone manage to cheat sporting death, and put a few extra years on their professional existence the way Phelps has done.
But no-one can cheat it for ever. Phelps has said that Rio will be his final competition, and his Olympic funeral isn’t the one to take place at these Games: Jessica Ennis-Hill; Venus Williams; David Weir in next month’s Paralympics. Phelps admitted to being in a dark place post-London 2012. Was he hoping that Rio 2016 would allow him a level of contentment that he’s hitherto been unable to attain?
Regardless, if Phelps wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, maybe he found it in Rio. In the aftermath of his 22nd gold, he said, “I’ve been able to do everything I ever wanted.” Let’s hope so, because sport is littered with the strewn ambitions of those who went on too long. On a long enough timeline, sport becomes a game of roulette. Play long enough and eventually your number won’t come up.
To watch his stupefying turn in the 4×100 freestyle relay, or the way he blitzed past Ryan Lochte in the 200 individual medley in the breaststroke leg (notionally his weakest of the four disciplines, and Lochte’s strongest) was to watch a man attack his races with a voracious ardour, as if each one could be his last. This time, it finally might be.
 – To return to Lord of the Rings, it felt like this clip.
 – The inverse of this is also true. Just look at the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.