Oliver McAfee, a 29-year-old gardener from Essex, England, is currently missing in the Negev desert, Israel. It’s feared he may be suffering from Jerusalem syndrome, a psychiatric condition triggered in certain people by a visit to the Holy Land.
The condition causes these people to believe they are prophets or other biblical figures, or have in some way discovered some sort of religious truth. According to an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000, each year an average of 100 tourists with the syndrome are referred to a specialist clinic near Jerusalem, forty of them requiring admission.
I mention this partly because it’s interesting in its own right and partly in order to begin on a vaguely religious note. The main reason I mention it, though, is that Kelly Slater recently went on a “spiritual retreat" to the Rythmia Life Advancement Centre.
The website of this luxury resort in Costa Rica claims that 93.26% of the guests “report a life-changing miracle during their stay". Some will say this is a tenuous link but I’m afraid that tenuous links, along with the vaguely religious leitmotif, are pretty much the theme of this article.
Slater described his experience at the resort as the most profound of his life, characterising it as a “miracle of thought". I only heard about it today, in a piece written by Surf Europe contributor Ben Mondy and published on the WSL website. The article’s called “What Will Kelly Do Next?" It’s a familiar question but a good one, and naturally Mondy makes a decent fist of it, suggesting a range of possibilities that includes a 12th world title, victory at the forthcoming Surf Ranch Open, and a berth in the WSL commentary booth.
Part of me thinks that whatever Slater does next he’ll be fine. He's set for life: he has his own eponymous pool, and on good days can even see his reflection in it, like Narcissus but more barrelled. It’s literally made for him. But another part of me worries for him, and the question has taken on a renewed urgency in the light of recent weeks.
I’m talking, of course, about the retirement of Phil “The Power" Taylor. Two Mondays ago, Taylor stepped up to the oche for the last time in a professional capacity, to play Rob Cross in the final of the PDC World Darts Championship. Taylor, aged 57 and going for his 17th world title, lost 7-2. And now he has hung up his tungstens.
It’s strange to think, but there are surfers out there who don’t even know who Phil “The Power" Taylor is. They go about their lives — checking the surf, walking the dog, watering the garden — oblivious to his existence, confident in their barely questioned assumption that Kelly Slater is the greatest athlete of all time. Then again, this time a fortnight ago I didn’t know who George Digweed was.
“Well, a man should know when to leave the party"
George Digweed has won a total of 26 clay pigeon shooting world titles — spread over several disciplines, admittedly, but also over four decades. There's more: he has an entry in Wisden Cricketer’s Almanac, thanks to bowling figures of 8 wickets for no runs off 5 overs in a Sussex league cup match, and is the brother of John Digweed, the house-music DJ. So there you go.
Whether or not Digweed is currently pondering retirement I’ve no idea, but whenever I think about Phil Taylor and Kelly Slater at the same time — roughly twice a day, to be fair — I am always put in mind of George Smiley’s words in the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: “Well, a man should know when to leave the party." He probably says it in the novel too, which I’ve not read if I’m being 100% honest. In the film it’s Gary Oldman saying it, and he says it in a gruff, stoic sort of way that’s just about perfect. He’s also wearing a grey or possibly even brown suit at the time, which definitely helps.
When to leave the party is, I think, one of the big questions in life, in its literal as well as its figurative sense. I’ve not always got my timing exactly right on the literal plane, so I have a degree of sympathy with the great or once-great or once-half-decent athlete as he contemplates, or indeed refuses to contemplate, his sporting mortality.
"Bjorn Borg, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, retired aged 26 with 11 Grand Slam singles titles to his name"
Several archetypal retirement templates come to mind. Bjorn Borg, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, retired aged 26 with 11 Grand Slam singles titles to his name. (He careened over the verge regardless, and a comeback in his 30s proved disastrous.) Fred Pattacchia — not, in fairness, a name likely to crop up in many “greatest ever" discussions — transcended his own mediocrity when, after scoring a 10-point ride in the first round of a mid-season event, he got straight out the water and retired before the end of the heat. Andy Irons… well, we all know how he left the party. Roger Federer was 30 when he won his 17th Grand Slam, and for almost five years looked unlikely ever to win another, but last year he finally got his 18th, and then became the oldest man to win Wimbledon in the Open Era a few months later. Now 36, he’s the favourite at this month’s Australian Open.
Taylor and Slater have not aged with Federer’s grace. Taylor won his last world title in 2013, Slater his in 2011, but the problem’s not been so much the decline of their abilities, which in itself has hardly been drastic, as the public struggle to come to terms with that decline.
"The problem’s not been so much the decline of their abilities, which in itself has hardly been drastic, as the public struggle to come to terms with that decline"
If passive aggression were a competitive sport it would be hard to choose between them, and neither would have to think about retiring any time soon. Meanwhile they’ve become increasingly inventive in their efforts to divert attention from their own failures and from others’ successes. Both, in other words, have at various times resembled the drunk guy who, redolent of alcohol and desperation, won’t take the hint that it’s time to go home.
As I say, I’m sympathetic. Alcohol and desperation is my default aroma. I also find, slightly to my consternation, that I’m heavily invested in the whole “greatest ever" mythology — the entirely nonsensical idea that, just as everyone is tied by fate to one true love and one alone, so there is in each sport a greatest ever, someone who not only never has been but never will be bettered.
Such a figure sounds suspiciously Christ-like, and it’s possible that the idea appeals precisely to that part of my brain shaped by a vaguely religious upbringing and since emptied of vaguely religious beliefs. In any case, I always want Slater to win. I can’t help it.
"In any case, I always want Slater to win. I can’t help it"
Speaking of the workings of my subconscious, I hadn’t even noticed the Taylor-Tailor connection until now. (Slater would be Tinker, if we had to assign parts, although Soldier and Spy would also fit.) And while we're on the subject, another thing I’m often put in mind of when I think of “The Power" is Indar Unanue. This is only partly because Indar means “power" in Basque.
Indar is not the GOAT, but he is like a goat, as the popular Spanish saying goes. To render a less literal translation, it means he’s a nutcase — the sort of man who grazes nonchalantly on the steepest inclines of Mount Shred. It’s also the case that he grew up on a farm in the Basque countryside, and I’d bet money he’s herded a goat or two in his time. (Is it possible to herd a goat, singular?)
Here’s his latest clip. You should watch it, if only in appreciation of that seamless segue.