Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, 36 years old. The best sprinter in the world and one of the most winning in the history of athletics.
Lionel Messi, 35 years old. Captain, leader and decisive figure of the last world soccer champion. Along with Pelé and Diego Maradona, he competes for most of humanity for the title of greatest exponent of all time in the most popular sport on the planet.
The Jamaican and Argentinian have just been chosen as the outstanding athletes of 2022 by the Laureus Awards. This annual recognition began to be awarded in 2000. Since then, and in different categories -including the one with an outstanding career beyond the current year- the idea is to recognize not only sporting virtue but also some degree of integrity off the courts. From Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus to Serena Williams and Roger Federer, the list of winners requires almost no videographs—almost without exception, mega-sports stars.
However, what just happened with Shelly-Ann and Lionel transcends the, in my opinion, undisputed selection as number one of the season. It also opens a new window to the logic of a generational shift in the validity of our icons.
Beyond the two of them, but including them, we are going through an extraordinary era in which the information that science provides to the athlete to take care of their work tool -their body- is proving key for them to extend their hegemony to ages when, a short time ago, most of their references had been retired or navigating the sunset.
Just as the case of the Uzbek Oksana Chousovitina, who is active in artistic gymnastics at just under fifty years old, is clearly a rare warning for her discipline, other sports, both collective (Messi) and individual (Fraser-Pryce), make it clear that, until recently, seemed to be the exception, today is beginning to be the rule.
The men’s tennis circuit is a witness case.
Even with Roger Federer retired and Rafael Nadal suggestively inactive (his decision whether or not to play the next Roland Garros could give a strong signal about his decision to move forward despite physical suffering), the magic trident they formed with Novak Djokovic until too recently were an insurmountable wall for new generations. Moreover, the succession process confronts this sport with the challenge of surviving a period that is atomized in terms of reference. Except for the extraordinary exception of Carlos Alcaraz, today several steps above his rivals under 30, none of the others shows enough consistency to fight for a space on Olympus created by the Swiss, the Spanish and the Serbian (with guards the size of Murray, Del Potro, Wawrinka, Cilic or Berdych).
Nobody disputes the talent of players like Tsitsipas, Sinner, Ruud, Rune or Rublev, but neither are the results that show them unstable between great weeks and unexpected defeats a few days later. Surely several of them will break its roof and give us extraordinary moments. But it seems that, for that to happen, they must finish maturing at an age when, until 15 or 20 years ago, the best stopped competing.
Simplifying the question, it is something like that, while science provides information on clinical health, sports health, mental health, nutrition and other care, those formerly called veterans today add knowledge and experience to a physical strength that seems indelible.
Finally, as if to get out of the world of rackets, one more example of athletics serves. Justin Gatlin, that North American speed phenomenon who announced his retirement in 2022, ran faster and “cleaner” at 33 (9.74 in Qatar in 2015) than at 20 or 24 when he received his two doping sanctions. And there’s more: he won his last world title in London in 2017, with Usain Bolt on the track, and was champion at the pole and runner-up in the 100 of the Doha World Cup, at the age of 37.
Everywhere, sport continues to show us signs of its evolution. And it teaches us that, as with tennis, no stroke is more important and no muscle has more influence than the brain.