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Coming out of retirement

 The Big Issue Australia 11 April 2019

The days of a farewell dinner and a gold watch upon leaving a job are becoming a thing of the past. Is retirement outdated? A recent rash of comebacks from sportsmen to politicians seems to indicate so. (2414 Words) - By Alan Attwood


BI Australia_Coming out of retirement

 Geoff Huegill competes in the men's 100m butterfly swimming semi-finals during the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. Photo: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Libby Trickett did it. Then 'Thorpey', followed soon afterwards by his former colleague in a gold-medal-winning relay team, Michael Klim. Suddenly it seemed that all big-name swimming Australian stars were coming out of retirement. Must have been something in the water.

Actually, Geoff Huegill is probably the one to blame. The butterfly swimmer, now 32, became the feel-good story of last year's Commonwealth Games in Delhi, India, when he made a successful comeback to top-level competition. In 2004, following the Athens Olympics, Huegill walked away from the pool. He'd achieved a lot and wanted a break from incessant training. So he did all that he'd denied himself for years: drank beer, ate pizzas, piled on the weight. That was fun for a while, until depression hit. He had lost all sense of purpose. Tentatively, he dipped his toes back in the chlorine.

It took time. But slowly the weight came off and his times improved. He was older now than most of his fellow swimmers but, compared to them, had a stronger sense of why he was racing. Firstly, to show he still could and, more importantly, simply because he loves it. As he told Good Weekend magazine recently: "I love racing. I love the fact that I stand on the blocks with seven other guys and we race from one end of the pool to the other. It's like being a kid again, challenging your mates in the backyard pool. You say, 'Mate, I'll race you to the other side and back'." Vindication for all his effort came with a couple of gold medals in Delhi. Suddenly he was the poster boy for couch potatoes everywhere, not least other former champion swimmers who had also retired in their twenties.

Because of Ian Thorpe's standing in sport - nine medals, including five gold, making him Australia's greatest Olympian - his proposed comeback has attracted the greatest attention, not to mention some cynicism concerning commercial motives. (Thorpe has become adept at mentioning his sponsors.) But Thorpe, Trickett and Klim have all talked about missing the buzz of competition. A whiff of chlorine can still get the adrenaline surging. Thorpe has talked about visiting the swimming pool for London's Olympics next year and realising he would much rather be in the water than watching from the sidelines.

Trickett's story is similar. In 2009, when she was just 24, she meant it when she said she wanted to "move on and have a new challenge and step outside my comfort zone". But then, in a new media role, she attended an event in March last year at the former Olympic venue in Sydney. She said later: "I walked on to the pool deck and there's this smell that Homebush has… And I felt these twinges in my memory and my emotion." There was something else, too: "I missed the team, I missed being fit, I missed racing." The bottom line is that participating tends to be more fun, and more fulfilling, than spectating.

Everyone loves a comeback, even when it means a backdown. Trickett was sincere when she said she wanted to move on. So, too, Thorpe in 2006, when he vowed never to return to competitive swimming.

But sportsmen and women are not the only ones allowed to change their minds. In April last year, for example, the former federal opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, declared he would not stand for re-election in his Sydney seat of Wentworth in the coming federal election. This decision, he said, was "a very personal and heartfelt one which can only be made by me and my family. As to the future, Lucy [his wife] and I look forward to once again pursuing new opportunities in the private sector." Perhaps these opportunities were not as promising, or plentiful, as they imagined. Just a month later, after the names of many possible candidates for Wentworth had been tossed around in public, Turnbull announced that, well, actually, he would be standing again after all. He held the seat, and is still in the political frontline.

One of those who had urged Turnbull not to retire was his former party leader, John Howard. It is easy to imagine Howard (now 71) telling Turnbull that 55 is too young to be tossing it in. But Howard was never one for retiring. Just ask Peter Costello.

And the result of the 2007 election - when Howard simultaneously lost government, his prime minister's office and also his seat - reinforced a reality of politics: retiring on your own terms, at a time of your own choosing, is a rarity. Most politicians, and especially leaders, have decisions about retirement made for them - either by the public or members of their own parties. Ask Kevin Rudd.

One of Howard's political heroes, Margaret Thatcher, made clear her own thoughts on retirement in a speech farewelling Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal in June 1990. "I am not at all sure I approve of the idea of retiring so young [Ramphal was then 61] and after a mere 15 years," said Thatcher. "I see that as a time when you are just getting nicely into your stride." This was, quite likely, a declaration to dissenters in her own ranks. If so, it didn't change their minds. Thatcher was forced out five months later, in November 1990, after 11 years as UK Prime Minister. She left Downing Street in tears, regarding her toppling as a terrible betrayal.

Thatcher was then 65, which, neatly, is generally regarded as the normal retirement age, although there are variations around the world. In Germany, Norway and the US, 67 is a common retirement age, although those countries also have provisions for earlier retirement. It can be a sensitive topic, as the French Government discovered late last year: rioting on the streets greeted its proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 (which many people would not think unreasonable). It did so in an attempt to ease budgetary pressure: all around the world, as baby boomers head into retirement, governments will need to support more and more people.

Notions about retirement are changing. The global financial crisis smashed the nest eggs of many aspiring retirees, many of whom now fear that they simply cannot afford to retire. In Australia, economists have recently been analysing a trend they call 'the cautious consumer', thought to be behind a drop in retail sales and household spending. One explanation is that ageing boomers, having been burnt in the GFC, are now saving rather than spending.

Supporting retirement is one thing; living long enough to enjoy it is another. The concept of retirement as a right, something owed to people by the government as a reward for many decades of diligent toil, is one that has emerged only in the past few centuries - mainly because, before then, low life expectancies made the notion fanciful. But the term is an old one: Milton and Shakespeare both used it, the latter generally to denote a deliberate withdrawal from the world. In the last Act of The Tempest, Prospero announces: "And thence retire me to my Milan, where/Every third thought shall be my grave."


Is it this linking of retirement with death that deters Rupert Murdoch from embracing the idea? Possibly, though a simpler explanation is that, at 80, he believes he still has too much to do. Nothing has changed since 2003, when he told a shareholders' meeting that any retirement plans he might once have harboured had been put on hold "forever". Without a global business to run, what would he do? This is the question that worries many people facing retirement - even leaders of the free world, who, like all politicians, can have little say about when they move on.

After his finite two terms had ended early in 2009, George W Bush had to get used to a very different lifestyle. As he recounted in a speech in his home state of Texas late last year, this meant making some changes. He described walking his dog, Barney, in his new neighbourhood in Dallas when Barney did what doggies do. So, he said, "10 days out of the presidency, there I was with a plastic bag in my hand, picking up that which I had been dodging for the past eight years". Since then, Bush - still only 64 - has done what ex-presidents tend to do (produce a thick volume of memoirs) and must now contemplate what to do with the rest of his life.

Last July, the revered South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, used 'retirement' in the Shakespearian sense when he announced that on his 79th birthday he intended to "withdraw from public life". Why? Because, as he explained: "Instead of growing old gracefully, at home with my family - reading and writing and praying and thinking - too much of my time has been spent at airports and in hotels. As Madiba [the clan name for Nelson Mandela] said on his retirement [aged 85, in June 2004]: 'Don't call me, I'll call you'." After all they have achieved in their public lives, nobody could begrudge Tutu and Mandela quiet time spent with their roses or grandkids.

Equally, however, there are many (apart from Murdoch) to whom the notion of retirement is anathema. A deeply instilled sense of duty prevents Queen Elizabeth II, for example, from entertaining any thoughts of stepping aside from the throne she has occupied since June 1953, even though she turns 85 in mid-April. And her oldest child, Charles, now 62, who has waited and waited for a crack at being king, would know only too well that his grandmother, the Queen Mother, lived until she was in sight of her 102nd birthday.


While sportsmen and women tend to peak and then retire very young - Swiss tennis player Martina Hingis was a Grand Slam champion at 15 and a retiree at 22 - those in the arts tend to keep working. Picasso was still painting well into his eighties; PG Wodehouse was still banging out books in his nineties; Leonard Cohen, now 76, has been performing sell-out concerts around the world in recent years. Meanwhile, Bob Dylan, who will play concerts in Australia in April and then turn 70 in May, just keeps rolling along on his never-ending tour. Why retire when people will still pay to hear you sing your songs?

Some, however, have no choice about retirement - and not only politicians. The high-profile NSW Director of Public Prosecutions, Nicholas Cowdery, retired recently despite officially having life tenure in the position. Complications affecting his pension meant he would be financially disadvantaged if he continued as DPP, a job he had held for 16 years, past his 65th birthday in March. Cowdery made it clear to his staff he was retiring "at a time not of my choosing". Similarly, many good teachers, including experienced principals, in Australian public schools retire before they reach 65 because they are financially better off not working. This makes little sense.

Good people must then find new things to do, which is exactly what has confronted all those champion swimmers in their twenties. It is not hard to understand why they would relish a break from all that relentless training. Kieren Perkins - who retired after the Sydney Olympics in 2000, having added a silver medal to the two gold medals previously won in the 1500m freestyle - later said he knew it was time to go when he realised his favourite time in the day was the few minutes he spent alone in his car, listening to music, before starting another early-morning, lap-after-lap pool session. Perkins has since distinguished himself by not announcing
a return to top-level competition.

Those who have know the risks. Thorpe would appreciate that Huegill-like comebacks are rare. Mark Spitz, for example, possibly did not enhance his reputation by striving for a place on the US swimming team for the 1992 Olympics, 20 years after winning an unprecedented seven Olympic gold medals in the pool at Munich. At the age of 41, Spitz could not even attain the required qualifying time. Ah yes, Thorpe could respond, but he is now 28, not 41, which is a reminder that he was only 17 when he won five swimming medals at the Sydney Olympics. He insists he still has the necessary competitive drive partly because, like Hingis, Thorpe peaked and then walked away when very young.

So did Björn Borg. The five-time Wimbledon winner retired in 1983 at 26. Eight years later he attempted a comeback, even trying to use his old wooden racquets, even though tennis technology had moved on. So had other players, as Borg soon discovered when he lost 12 successive first-round matches. Champions should not do this to themselves. Already, Trickett and Thorpe have talked about how tough it is trying to keep up with younger, less experienced swimmers in training sessions.

Still, they can always rewind the Michael Jordan highlight tapes. Jordan is an expert on retirement. He's done it several times - first in 1993, aged 30, having won three championships with the Chicago Bulls. He said then he had nothing left to achieve in basketball. Seventeen months later he was out of retirement, having played a lot of golf and proved to the world he was a better basketball player than baseballer. He also made a movie, Space Jam (1996) co-starring Bugs Bunny.

Jordan's comeback was a success. More championships were won, the last in 1998, when the Bulls' season was dubbed "The Last Dance". Early in 1999 he retired again. That would have been a fitting end to his sporting story, but it seems there are only so many cigars to smoke and games of golf to play. In 2000 he was back one more time, first in a management role with a Washington team and then, creaking knees and all, as a player. Neither he, nor his team, reached any great heights. He was 40 when he retired, perhaps for good, in 2003.

And that was it. But who's to say he's not keeping an eye on Thorpey? Besides, with that outsized ego, bling and cologne, Jordan was never anyone's idea of a retiring type.


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Originally published by The Big Issue Australia. ©

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