Veteran Athletes’ Dilemma: Continue or Retire?

“I am too tired to continue. I decided to retire.” This is what Zhang Guowei, a Chinese star high jumper and former world silver-medalist, wrote on Weibo. Zhang was renowned for his flamboyant twerking celebrations. His retirement decision stunned people and raised huge discussions. Zhang did not disclose why he made the decision in his post, but people widely guessed that the delay of the Olympic games might be the primary reason. Although Zhang had still been striving to reach Olympic qualifying standards before announcing his decision, his performance kept stably improving in recent months and he had a high possibility to receive admission to the games. However, a one year delay means too many uncertainties for the 31-year-old athlete. 

After Zhang announced his retirement decision, people started to wonder whether more athletes would decide to quit, especially experienced athletes who are still an important part of a sports team. China’s women’s volleyball started preparing for Tokyo this January. As the defending champion, China maintained a high-level performance in the new Olympic cycle and many people believed that Tokyo would be the best chance for China to successfully defend the title, which has never been achieved by a team before. However, many athletes on the team are over thirty years old. Especially the team’s setter, an undoubtedly important part of the team, Ding Xia, is going to enter her 30s, which has usually been seen as a watershed of player’s performance. How the team can optimize its age structure to remain competitive in a packed game schedule next year is a serious issue the team needs to consider.

The same conditions exist in the Chinese athletics team. Among all events, China is hoping to earn medals in women’s shot put and racewalk. However, 31-year-old Gong Lijiao, a former shot-put Olympic medalist in Beijing and London and gold medalist in the world’s championship last year, is plagued by both injuries and age, and Liu Hong, the winner of women’s 20k racewalk in Rio 2016, is also uncertain on whether she wants to continue for one more year. Su Bingtian, the first ever Asian-born sprinter to break the 10-second barrier of the 100-meter event in track and field, is also resisting the loss of form brought by increased age. He has confirmed he would fight for his Olympic dream again next year, but whether he can keep his peak-level performance for one more year is an open question with no confirmed answer.

Compared to volleyball and athletics, athletes of some sports, for instance, gymnastics and diving, are generally more sensitive to age and thereby the game’s delay has a larger impact on them. Even Simone Biles, recognized as the most dominant athlete on the planet in the gymnastics venue, said she was crying when she heard the news of the delay. Four years ago in Rio, Chinese gymnastics experienced a disastrous 10 days with zero gold medals earned. Among girls who competed in Rio, Fan Yilin is the only one who is still active. She is turning 22 next year. Although she has been struggling with several serious injuries, Fan still continues completing for her Olympic dream. Liu Tingting, the world gold medalist in uneven bars in 2018, is also turning 21 next year. Unnamed in the Olympic squad, Liu views Tokyo as her last chance to perform in the Olympic games, but now she has to wait one more year and pray she can maintain both her consistency and the level of difficulty.

Though the delay might mess up some athletes’ original plans, its impact on Chinese sports teams is two sided. While praying for those veterans, we should gladly see that some new stars are rising. In last year’s World Championships, Tang Xijing, a 27-year-old, won a silver medal in women’s all-around, which is the highest medal a Chinese athlete has ever won. Lang Ping, the head coach of the Chinese women’s volleyball team, also named Mei Xiaohan, a 23-year-old setter into the squad. If up-and-coming stars keep on the right track, they could possibly play bigger roles in Chinese sports in following years, which would not only benefit Tokyo 2020, but also Paris 2024.

Sports can be cruel. They don’t care about who you are or what you once achieved. Instead, medals are awarded to those who are currently dominating the venue. Veterans will quit the stage eventually, but there are always be new budding athletes coming into leading roles. However, we need to understand that the goal of sports is always to be No. 1, but the goal of the Olympics is not. The goal of the Olympics is to encourage people to knock down barriers, to keep fighting until the last second, to keep strong despite difficulties, and to believe that limits don’t exist. No one knows how many of those who are in their final career years can compete in Japan next year, and maybe only a few of them can stand on the podium. However, their spirit to fight and persevere will always inspire generations to breakdown ceilings in their lives.

Best of luck to those Chinese fighters who are still working to achieve their dreams. They have overcome numerous challenges in their careers and the game’s delay is just one more obstacle they need to climb over. As Yang Yang, the first Chinese winter Olympic medalist, said, “The change is not for one individual, but for all athletes. An outstanding athlete should be able to adapt to any changes quickly.” Also, best of luck to Zhang Guowei and others who might make the same decision next year. Sports are important, but sports are not the only thing in life. Congratulations to all athletes who have had fantastic careers and wish the next chapter in their life can be even more fabulous.