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Sports, from "To an Athlete Dying Young," by peom by A.E. Housman

Subthemes: Injuries, Diminishment of Skills from Aging, Stars and Megastars

A. E. Housman chose a metaphor from sports, but his poem conveys more broadly a truth about reputation: celebrities often outlive their fame, and ungracefully, if the name died before the man. By ironic contrast, the young winner of a footrace – that early-laurelled head – died within a short time thereafter, while the laurel garland of his honor remained fresh. The poem brings to mind other aspects of Sports.

To An Athlete Dying Young,

The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.

And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.

Injuries: Death takes an athlete permanently off the field of life, but weaknesses of the body – injuries – foreshadow it as short-term impersonators. Athletes compete in sports that demand physical strength, speed, flexibility, and endurance. When athletes warm up too quickly, push their bodies to extremes, crash violently together, repeat the same stressful motion, hang on too long, or suffer bad luck, they get hurt. Knees go in football, rotator cuffs give way in tennis, elbows surrender to Tommy John surgery in baseball, hamstrings tear in cricket, spinal vertebrae weaken in golf, Achilles tendons pop in basketball, ACLs tear when on ski slopes, and steeds shatter their forelegs. Despite skilled trainers and warm up routines, injuries mar sports at unpredictable intervals. Time spent on injury lists and in rehabilitation follow, and some athletes never return to form. Recovery from injuries dogs almost every athlete at some point.

Diminishment of Skills from Aging: In Housman’s poem, the champion runner dies young, the final round of life that we all lose. Our bodies peak around age 20 in terms of strength, agility, flexibility, endurance, and recovery time – that is our physical prime of life. The decades of the 20’s and 30’s flash the hardest punches. Thoughtful, informed, disciplined workouts and lifestyles can sustain high-level performance for a time, but inevitably and inexorably the performance of athletes decline – athletic excellence is The garland briefer than a girl’s. Experience helps them keep the edge and extend their years of accomplishment, but the deterioration of age slows, injures, and eventually stops everyone. We marvel at the longevity of a Drew Brees, Nolan Ryan, Phil Mickelson, Roger Federer, and David Robinson but they are the rare exceptions to being benched too early by Coach Time.

Stars and MegaStars: You must stay near the top of your sport for much longer than did Housman’s lad, but for a tiny fraction of professional athletes, fortunes and fame rewards them. The rare athletes who achieve world-class status, and maintain that exalted peak for a few years, can exploit their stardom into wealth. Eye-popping salaries and lucrative sponsorships spin their glow into gold, while memorabilia signings, pep-talk speeches, ghost-written books, advertisement cameos for gold medalists and other opportunities enrich athletes who thrill mobs of adoring fans. The hero worship of a Lionel Messi, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan or Tom Brady resembles godlike (gold-like) status. A handful of retired athletes parlay their reputations into roles beyond sports such as Jim Bunning serving in the U.S. Senate, Derek Jeter buying the Miami Marlins, Magic Johnson’s investments in the Los Angeles Lakers, and George Foreman hawking grills. Shaquille O’Neal has built a television, music, and film career that has accumulated a net worth of $400 million.


Accomplishment in sports bestows on an athlete a reputation, perhaps even renown, but life trundles on, the champion will see the record cut, as injuries or growing older and slower diminishes abilities. A few standouts may prosper hugely, but most prominent athletes are left with dusty awards and faded cheers.

If you are interested in other thoughts on the concept “Sail Ships,” consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, “About.”

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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