Sport is enjoyed by everyone, old and young, far and wide, whether you are a spectator or participant, and certainly, if you are not competing professionally, there is not really a definitive age limit in terms of when you can take part in it.
Of course, there are many different sports, some more popular than others in some parts of the world and more accessible.
However, for professional athletes, there is a particular lifespan, especially for their chosen sport, though there have been some anomalies over the years, whereby the best have competed at the highest level, significantly longer than average.
Also, there are some sports whereby professional participants compete for longer, even into their 50s at the highest level, especially for sports that are not necessarily considered as physical and as a result impact the body too much.
Let’s take a look at a number of different sports and how they differ in connection to how long athletes compete until, with some examples of unique cases as well.
For a long time, football was a sport that once a player reached the age of 30 or early 30s, it was considered that they were reaching the end of their career, however, over the last two decades, there have been many cases whereby players have competed at the highest level way into their mid and even late 30s.
Most professional footballers typically sign their first professional contract as early as 16, usually having been at a football club since they were very young, rising through the different youth teams.
Because of this, there have been very gifted players who have burst onto the scene as teenagers and made a considerable impact from this age, the most notable in English football over the last 20 years, being Wayne Rooney, when he appeared for Everton aged 16. In fact, the former England international properly introduced himself to the football world with a blockbuster volley for Everton against Arsenal, five days before his 17th birthday having come on as a substitute.
Rooney would go on to play (not quite at the highest level) until he was 34 with second-tier Derby County, before taking over as manager.
Let’s take a look at some examples of players in the game in recent history, who have beaten the clock to play well into their 30s over the last couple of decades.
In terms of age, arguably one of the most evergreen footballers to have played the game at the highest level, is former treble-winner at Manchester United [Teddy] Sheringham who could also be described as one of the most ultimate athletes in the sport when it came to taking care of himself. Aged 40 years and 268 days, he became the oldest-ever scorer in the Premier League when he notched against former club Portsmouth, playing for West Ham United. He would eventually finish his career, aged 42 with Colchester United in the English second tier.
Arguably one of the greatest defenders of the modern era, the Italian spent his whole career playing for AC Milan, at the top level, winning multiple trophies and accolades. When he retired in 2009 at the age of 39, he was still a regular in the team. The Italian league acquired a reputation for lengthening the careers of footballers, especially AC Milan, due to various the methods that the club used.
One of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, is currently still playing at the age of 43 at what can arguably still be described as a ‘high level’, though perhaps not an elite one. After an illustrious career, largely spent with Juventus, with a two-year spell at star-studded PSG sandwiched in between, Buffon has returned to where it all started at Serie A club Parma.
While the role of goalkeeper is one position that has become normal for players to carry on into their 30s, Buffon has done this consistently for clubs that can be considered to be two of the best in European football. This is also quite a physical position in football, due to the amount of diving around and this can take its toll on the body, if it is not looked after.
This is one sport that could not be any different to football in terms of how long players can compete, even at the highest level, with many players still performing very well, into their 50s and certainly in their 40s.
While golf is a lot less physical than football, considering that it is not a contact sport, it still does demand a lot from the body, especially for golfers who are ‘big-hitters’. It isn’t unusual for golfers to suffer back injuries due to the technique that is involved in swinging a golf club and as a result, regular stretching is prescribed for golfers. Let’s take a look at some examples of players who have had long golf careers.
One of the most well-known golfers, three-time Masters champion Faldo announced his retirement following the end of the The Open Championship in 2015, when he shot an admirable one-under-par, aged 57 at St Andrews.
At the age of 58, the golfer from Fiji, who s still widely regarded in the world of golf, is still playing and often qualifies for major tournaments. In 2004, Singh was ranked as number one for 32 weeks and has won three major titles and over 30 tour events.
Still competing right at the top of the game, the 51-year-old American golfer is still a regular feature at the major tournaments, with his last victory coming in 2021 at the US PGA Championship. Throughout his golf career, which still looks like it has a promising few more years, Mickelson has won six major championships and can count over 40 PGA Tour victories.
A sport that certainly over the last two decades that has two players who have almost broken the mould in terms of continuing to compete at the highest level, indeed surpassing previous legends of the game; Andre Agassi (33) and Pete Sampras (32).
No introduction is needed to the rigorous physical demands of tennis and the effects that this can have on the body; the nature of the sport itself, full of short sprints in multiple directions and constant movement of the arm, swinging to the ball and also serving. Let’s take a look at some of the notable mentions of the sport.
Regarded by many as the greatest tennis player to ever grace the sport, at the age of 40, the Swiss star is still ranked at number nine in the world, though for many fans could still be seen as the undisputed ‘number one’. With 20 major wins to his name, he won his last in 2017 at the age of 36. Over the last couple of years, the player has struggled with injuries, as a result of being at the top of his game for so long.
Five years Federer’s junior at 35, Nadal is another tennis player who is just as well respected, Nadal is known for his highly aggressive, ‘all or nothing’ nature and typically leaves everything on a tennis court.
It is because of this approach to playing why he has struggled with knee injuries over the last couple of years, though despite this, the Spaniard has still won 20 majors. It will certainly be interesting to see how long Nadal can carry on playing.
Making up the last of arguably the greatest rivalry of trios in any sport, at 34, the Serbian continues to perform and also takes care of his body. Similar to Federer, rather than Nadal in style (though, when Federer was at his peak, he was untouchable), Djokovic has won 20 major tournaments and could well compete at the highest level for another couple of years.
Another sport that still can take a toll on the body, especially because games can last for so long, sometimes, fro whole days (6-8 hours) with a couple of breaks in between. However, there have still been legends of the game that have played into their 30s at the highest level. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Arguably one of the most famous cricketers of the last two decades, the Australian was part of a brilliantly talented national team, retiring at the age of 37 leaving a legacy as one of hte best spin-bowlers in the modern era.
Still playing (even for England) at the age of 40, ‘Jimmy’ Anderson is still regarded as one of the best bowlers in the game and has made sure that he is in peak, physical condition over the last few years, looking after his body, well.
Retiring in 2004, the former England international cricketer was 36 when he hung up his bat an had a big influence on the game. Almost setting a trend for his colleagues that followed to play longer, the batsman was a considered the consumate professional and has been an example for many who have followed.
Many people perhaps do not realise the rigours that motorsport can have on your body, due to supercars reaching blistering speeds. Muscle tension, heat stress and extreme G-force levels are just some of the components that require Formula 1 drivers especially, to make sure that their bodies are in peak physical condition.
Despite that, drivers still compete at the highest level of the sport well into their 30s, though often tend to make breakthrough in the sport during their mid-20s, or in rare cases a few years younger than that. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Retiring in 1999, the British F1 driver was 39 when he retired, with one world championship title to his name, which came three years earlier. He was considered the best British racing driver since Jackie Stewart and helped to set an example for young racers in the country once again.
Arguably the greatest racing driver since the mercurial Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna, the German was 43 when he announced his retirement fom the sport in 2012. He has an unprecedented seven world championship titles to his name, however, this could soon be broken. An incredible sports person to compete at the highest level for so long.
The man who could be the closest to threatening Schumacher’s record, Hamilton is currently still competing at the age of 36. He is currently tied with the German on seven world championships, having won four consecutively between 2017 and 2021. There is no reason why Hamilton cannot keep performing at the highest level for another few years.
This is another sport, that does throw up a number of arguments, especially because there are so many different weights. Boxing is arguably one of the most punishing sports in the world and can have long term effects on the body. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s take a look at examples of heavyweight boxers who have had long careers.
At 45, Foreman was the oldest ever heavyweight boxing champion having come out of retirement to beat Michael Moorer in 1994. The American boxer finally retired at the age of 48 and while there were talks of a comeback at the age of 55, this never materialised.
The Ukranian former heavyweight boxer who is now the Mayor of Kiev, was 42 when he retired from the sport in 2013 and is the second oldest heavyweight champion of all time. With 15 heavyweight titles to his name, the boxer is one of the most decorated in the sport of boxing.
The younger of the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir was just as good, if not better than his sibling. He became the third oldest heavyweight boxer to win a title at the age of 39, while he reitred in 2017 at the age of 41, still in supreme physical condition.
There is no doubt that there are many different variables that affect how long an athlete can compete in a sport at the highest level. Some sports are renowned for having longer careers, due to the fact that there is less physical activity.
Indeed, honourable mentions must go to darts and snooker, with players often competing into their 50s, with darts perhaps being the one where competitors are in the sport for longer.
Injuries can also have an impact on the duration of careers in certain sports, though other variables can come into play as well, such as the individual in question and how well they have taken care of their body up to that point. This, then means that if the competitor has looked themself before getting injured, their recovery rate could well be faster.