An article by Will Swanton in The Australian last week got me thinking, after a long time, about the workload on top athletes these days. It was about Rafael Nadal, and talked of a 26-year-old struggling (for the past seven years, we learn) to stand up and walk, leave alone play tennis - that too in the excessively physical fashion he has perfected. "The clock has been ticking for years," wrote Swanton. But such is life at the top in the world of sport, such is his inability to accept that he can't do what he is best at, that Nadal has pushed himself, "painkilling injections his constant companion", far beyond what was ever conceived. It's reached a stage where, as Andre Agassi says, "He's writing cheques you only hope his body can cash."
Is that what Lance Armstrong did too? It seems unbelievable that Armstrong, one of the greatest athletes ever, one of reasons for loving sport in the last decade, was a cheat. But then, the question that has hovered over him all these years - how could he win the Tour de France seven times after his recovery from testicular cancer? - continues to niggle. It's important also to remember that experts say that the dope-control system itself is, sometimes, a bit of a cheat.
Cheats, of course, come in different shades in world sport. There are those who use artificial means to better themselves, and become the best in their discipline. Some get caught, the world frowns on them, and sometimes they become outcasts. Like Ben Johnson. Other times, circumstances conspire to let them off. Like the man Johnson beat in that 1988 Olympic games 100metres final, Carl Lewis. Allegedly part of a group of 114 American athletes to have failed dope tests between 1988 and 1990, but cleared by the United States Olympic Committee. Sometimes, people like Lewis are so let off that they turn around later and say, "The climate was different then." Sure, but not for Johnson?
Importantly, when it comes to India's favourite sport, by all accounts, illegal stimulants don't really help. That may be why cricket still doesn't observe the World Anti-Doping Agency code. Of course, there have been attempts to include cricket in its ambit, but for a number of reasons - the Board of Control for Cricket in India foremost among them - it's not happened. It's deemed incorrect in many quarters that cricket doesn't follow the WADA code, but at some level, it isn't a crisis, at least in my book. The obvious stimulants help with stamina and strength and, of course, recovery from injuries. Except for that last, there is no real use for enhancers in cricket, is there?
But cricket is as prone as any other sport to what we may now call the Nadal Syndrome. Cynics might say it's because cricketers essentially want to make the most money they can and hold on to their fame. Maybe. But it must be, in equal measure, the refusal to accept that the end is round the corner; that the body can't, at 35, do what it could at 25. I feel it every Sunday when I go to play football at a club in Bangalore. Luckily, I am not a footballer and my existence is not dependent on what I can or can't do on the field.
Unfortunately, Nadal is a tennis player and not, say, a banker, whose success at his job doesn't depend on his knees. That's true of Sachin Tendulkar too, as well as Yuvraj Singh, among many others, who, along with making lots of money, haven't known anything apart from cricket all these years.
Think about it. Tendulkar was not yet 17 when he made his Test debut. He was playing serious cricket for a few years prior to that. And now, at just over 39, he has played cricket - competitively - for over 25 years. His non-cricketing years add up to just over ten. Yuvraj, a cancer-survivor like Armstrong (his Twitter handle is 'yuvstrong'), was pushed into playing cricket by Yograj Singh, his ambitious cricketer-father, as a kid, and now, at close to 31 years of age, he has done nothing but play cricket for about two decades.
The Tendulkar story is somewhat different, in that despite having injured practically every part of his body over the years (wear and tear included), there's no compulsion, apart from age, to quit. Yuvraj's case, on the other hand, follows the Nadal Syndrome. Is he back at his best? No one knows. Does he have it in him, after staying out of the game for months to be treated for cancer and trying to recover since, to be the champion cricketer he was?
If there's one thing Yuvraj knows, it's that there's always a good chance he will do well, or brilliantly, in a big ICC tournament. He did it in 2007 when India won the World T20, and again in 2011 when India won the 50-over World Cup. It's like a Grand Slam for him. Nadal has pushed and pushed himself to win 11 Slams, as well as the 2008 Olympic gold. Yuvraj's next Slam is the World T20. Even if he's not a 100 percent, he will go out there and play from memory. Fantastic memories too. Much like, maybe, Nadal would have if it had been the French Open and not the US Open in August.
Gone are the days when a cricket team played only Test cricket, that too after travelling for weeks on a ship to another country to play a series over an entire summer. Now we have Tests, ODIs, T20Is, domestic cricket (sometimes) and T20 leagues scattered around the world. Everyone plays the year round. No one's getting younger. The aches and pains must be telling. Given the damage all this is wreaking on their bodies, I only hope it's the Nadal Syndrome that drives our heroes on and not the sinister option we discussed earlier.