Michael Schumacher’s 20 years in F1 and sporting longevity

Today Michael Schumacher competes in the Belgian Grand Prix 20 years after his first appearance in a Formula 1 race. It’s a remarkable achievement and compares with some of the the most notable cases of sporting longevity.

Schumacher, who has won the world title seven times, is spending his 17th season in Formula 1 having retired from the sport between 2006 and 2009. Since his return at the start of the 2010 season he has not won a race and has often been out-performed by his much younger team-mate Nico Rosberg.

You might be forgiven for asking why he bothers. After all, his place in Formula 1 history is assured, he is one of the wealthiest sportsmen in the world and a serious accident can never be ruled out. Surely he should retire from racing, devote himself to family life and the various humanitarian projects he has been involved in? Why does he keep going?

Well, eventually he will retire, perhaps at the end of this season (as a recent interview seems to suggest), although he is contracted through to the end of 2012.

Great champions in sport sometimes retire on a big win, when they potentially have a couple of years left. For example, Michael Johnson quit after winning the 400m gold medal at Sydney 2000 when he still looked unbeatable.

Others continue until they reach a point where they realise they are not quite at the level they once were. Pete Sampras bowed out on a high as champion at the US Open in 2002 after struggling earlier in the year.

Of course many others are not given the choice: omitted by the selectors, ruled out by injury, failing to qualify. A further category of champion continues to compete willingly when they are no longer in contention.

Examples familiar to British sports fans include snooker player Steve Davis (still playing professionally at 54, 14 years after his last major tournament victory) and cricketer Mark Ramprakash (still playing for a county side almost 10 years after he was discarded by the England selectors).

Barring accidents and ill-health, athletes will be retired for a long time so they may decide to continue competing for as long as they can. No doubt occasional victories against young tykes bring great satisfaction and help prove the critics wrong. The commentary box, coaching or administrative positions are not for everyone.

In the cases of Schumacher and Steve Davis, they were respected and feared by the fans in their heyday rather than loved. Years later the adulation comes more easily. Jimmy Connors might be another who comes into this category. Is a longing for public acceptance one of the motivations to keep going?

What athletes really prove by continuing on the circuit when they are no longer contenders is their genuine love for what they are doing. When the money is no longer a major factor and titles are not a realistic ambition, what is left is the enjoyment which brought them into the sport in the first place.

For this reason I would like to see fans and media show more appreciation for the long-serving athletes and players who battle on rather than slipping easily into their place in the commentary box.

If Michael Schumacher can manage one last Grand Prix win I for one will be cheering.

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