Time is passing some great athletes by

As Tiger Woods swings like a weekend hacker, Shaquille O'Neal holds a weird jersey number (36) in order to be a backup center and Lance Armstrong watches the leaders from behind, it reinforces the most brutal truth in sports:

Time remains undefeated.

From the moment an athlete turns pro, the hourglass on his career is turned over and the sand begins to sift down. Sometimes it empties fast. Where have you gone, Mark Prior? Sometimes the trickle is nearly imperceptible until Roger Federer walks off a loser at Wimbledon.

Some will say the root cause of Woods' ugly 18-over par performance last weekend was more residual aftereffects of his tortuous public revelation that he was an adulterous snake. Yeah, I'm guessing that might have contributed to his game being a pale facsimile of its former great self. But we can't answer the bigger question of whether natural, age-based erosion would have happened regardless.

Woods isn't yet ancient. He'll turn 35 in December. Neither is he the young Tiger who assumed — rightly, in many cases— that he was invincible on and off the fairway. At some point, every athlete senses the deterioration. Perhaps it's as simple as Woods seeing his receding hairline in the mirror, or realizing it's not quite as easy on the knees walking 72 holes any more. Most athletes, at least publicly, deny when they sense age taking over.


O'Neal, 38, has his own television show, "Shaq Vs.," in which he takes on a variety of people in a variety of events. His stay in Boston should be dubbed "Shaq vs. Time," and Time has a 20-point lead.

Shaq remains a charming rogue for the cameras, but he's slower, less intimidating and less effective on the court. When ESPN ran a video montage of some of his greatest moments when he signed with the Boston Celtics, it was shocking to see the slim, Orlando Magic version of Shaq. Forget hack-a-Shaq, that old clip looked like half-a-Shaq.

They say the television cameras add 10 pounds. Age accounts for the rest in Shaq's case. Maybe he has the temperament to be a backup playing limited minutes. After all, he said he came to Boston to win a title and that's all. Still, if the Celtics win that title — the Miami Heat might have a say in it Shaq will be a complementary player at best. Now, it's clear, you can tug on Superman's cape.

Armstrong's name alone seems to exude strength, yet he looked sapped of his old invincibility at the Tour de France this summer as leaders passed him. He has been dogged, too, by former teammate Floyd Landis' allegations of performance-enhancing drug use, so far to no "official" damage. But the toll on Armstrong's 38-year-old body over time is undeniable.

Sure, there are some sports where athletes can cheat time. Mark Martin and NASCAR come to mind, at least up until this year. Woods may yet be able to add to his major titles. The man he's chasing, Jack Nicklaus, won six majors after turning 34, and won his last at age 46.

Woods' aches and pains in his neck and knees show that age is creeping in. You can see similar deterioration in the way Shaq ambles on the court, or the way Armstrong strains as he's riding up a strenuous climb. Are these men still above mere mortals when it comes to their sports? No question. Yet stacked up against their past achievements still available on video you can see the hourglass filling heavily on the bottom.

These are some of the great athletes of our time. They've delivered thrill after thrill. Yet it's clear they can't avoid the fate that claimed the careers of Willie Mays, Joe Montana and even Michael Jordan.

We can make fun all day long of Brett Favre vacillating over retirement. But I understand his dilemma. He knows the day is coming when he'll be standing in Canton, Ohio, like Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith last weekend, reminiscing and thanking everyone. These former greats can bask in the glory, but they can't reclaim it.


Watching great athletes perform is a privilege. Watching their skills slip away is as bittersweet as anything in sports.

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