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The end is cruellest part of sport

Although from a physical perspective, the most fascinating part of a sportsman's life are his playing days.

india Updated: Jul 23, 2006 15:19 IST

Former football captain VP Sathyan's suicide reminds us that sportsmen work to a different rhythm from the rest of us. Between the ages of 20 and 35 they are stars, revelling in the applause, enjoying the spotlight.

Then suddenly, the light is switched off and it is all over. At an age when others are just beginning to make a mark in their chosen professions, the career of a sportsman comes to an end. The rest, in a sense, is silence.

"I had a lot of respect and admiration in society as long as I was a football player for India," wrote Sathyan in his poignant suicide note, "but at present, I've lost everything. I don't want to live in this world anymore."

Although from a physical perspective, the most fascinating part of a sportsman's life are his playing days, in a psychological sense, it is the period after the final bow that is the more interesting. The first time an ex-player walks unrecognised on his own street, he dies a little.

"How does it feel like to be a has-been?" I once saw someone ask cricketer Gundappa Vishwanath. It was meant as a joke, but for a moment, I saw the great batsman's expression change.

It is never easy to go gentle to that good night, as the poet said; most sportsmen rage against the dying of that light.

Television -- the ex-star's more enduring playing field -- briefly resurrected Sathyan. In an interview during the 2002 World Cup, when he was a TV expert he said, "People in my neighbourhood are suddenly curious about me. They are surprised I led India." This was just five years after he had retired.

Sportsmen spend their entire adult life in an artificial world, with its unrealistic expectations, enormous temptations and unnatural salaries. Some find it easier to continue in the artificial world - through drugs and alcohol.

Look at Diego Maradona. Sathyan, by his own admission frittered his money on gambling and alcohol. These are but the manifestations of a deeper problem, and one which has not received much attention: the post-retirement depression.

It is a bit unfair of former captain Baichung Bhutia to place the blame for Sathyan's suicide squarely on the All India Football Federation "which doesn't look after the players."

It was an emotional outburst, and in an ideal world, his reaction would have made perfect sense. But it would be more practical for ex-players to form an association to look after their own. They understand the needs best, after all.

Even in death, Sathyan exhibited the signs of an organised mind. He wrote to his wife saying he was sorry, but he couldn't talk to her about his intentions because she would be able to dissuade him; he wrote to the media thanking them for support over the years, and with a plea not to sensationalise his suicide.

What cannot be prevented however is the manner in which Sathyan the individual now becomes a type.

India's leading defender becomes a symbol for the cruelty of sport, its disdain for the sagging muscle and brittle bone and its theme as enunciated by F Scott Fitzgerald in another context: There is no second act in sportsmen's lives.

Yet Sathyan's death could bring sportsmen together with the aim of preventing depression ruling the lives of former players. There is life after football (or cricket or hockey or tennis) -- but players need counselling if they are not to succumb to the confusion and rootlessness that follow retirement. Most suicides in sport occur within the first few years of retirement, when alienation is at its worst.

'Sportsmen Anonymous' might be an ironic name for a body that could make the difference for anonymity is the one thing sportsmen are running from.

But like Alcoholics Anonymous it can help sportsmen with problems of one kind (the most common one, actually), while helping them cope with sudden change in their professional lives.

In the film The Final Test, the player for whom adulation is a memory muses: "The trouble with making a game a profession is that you're at the top too young. The rest of the way's a gentle slide down. Not so gentle sometimes. It makes one feel so ruddy useless and old."

With the right support from professionals and ex-players, no sportsman need feel useless and old.